Islamabad, Pakistan – A lack of consensus between religious leaders and the Pakistani government has seen Friday prayers in some mosques across the country, flouting government directives on social distancing amid the coronavirus epidemic.
In the capital, Islamabad, hundreds of people gathered at the Red Mosque, led by extremist religious leader Abdul Aziz, to offer prayers, standing side by side and filling the main hall of the mosque at full capacity.
Reports said that congregational prayers were also held in major mosques in other cities, with different levels of social distancing.
Aziz, who led an armed confrontation between his supporters and the government that resulted in raids by Pakistani soldiers on the mosque in 2007, was not available to speak on Friday.
He had spoken to Al Jazeera earlier this month by telephone, during which he remained adamant that he would continue to lead congregational prayers at the mosque.
” [Lockdowns are] not the answer to these problems, “Aziz told Al Jazeera. We think people shouldn’t be forced to fear things right now, they should have faith in God right now, and put their hope in him … If death is written for you, then it will come. “
Pakistan has seen at least 7,008 cases of coronavirus to date, with at least 134 deaths, according to government data. At least 1,757 patients have recovered.
Earlier this week, the Pakistani government eased a nationwide lockdown, reopening more than a dozen industries and business categories in an effort to prevent soaring unemployment and economic downturn caused by the lock.
However, mosques were advised to limit the prayers of the congregation to a maximum of five people, all of whom must be staff members residing on the premises of the mosque.
The police stood guard outside the red mosque in Islamabad, but did not intervene when the crowd formed inside.
A police official on the scene, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that they had not been ordered to arrest the people.
When asked if the faithful should be asked to keep a distance between them to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Aziz was adamant.
“Our position is against that. [Doctors’] opinion is not the word of God, it is their opinion, “he said. We think it’s a punishment from God, and it comes because we have filled the world with sins. “
Cancellation of commitment to reopen mosques
Religious leaders of more than a dozen prominent religious organizations on Tuesday signed a pledge to reopen their mosques, while promising to take precautions against the spread of the new coronavirus.
The order was canceled on Thursday, with several religious leaders who were present during Tuesday’s announcement saying that they were entering into negotiations with the government to develop standard operating procedures to reopen mosques safely.
“In grocery stores, people gather in the crowd and there is no crown[virus] over there? “Muneeb-ur-Rehman, a prominent religious leader, told Al Jazeera on Friday. It’s just a move to try to target religion and mosques. “
“If the problem is gathering, and if people are gathering in other places according to an SOP [Standard Operating Procedure], we can also do it in the mosque. Please end the hatred against the mosque. “
Rehman is one of a number of senior Muslim leaders scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday to lay down rules for the operation of mosques during the coronavirus pandemic.
In other mosques in Islamabad, Muslim leaders have applied social distancing guidelines.
“Anyone who wants to come can attend the prayers,” said Saeed-ur-Rehman, a prayer leader at a mosque in the F-11 district of the city. “We have informed our followers of all the steps to follow. “
In another large mosque in the F-8 district of the city, normally prepared for Friday noon prayers, there were about 40 worshipers gathered, all seated nearly six meters from each other.
“We are following any advice from the government on distancing,” said Ghulam Nabi Janbaz, a staff member at the mosque.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.