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Pakistani minister, Islamic clerics spar over lockdown

Cabinet member hits back at Muslim official's call to reopen mosques despite coronavirus fears

Pakistani minister, Islamic clerics spar over lockdown

A man wearing a face mask rides past a billboard with a picture of Prime Minister Imran Khan in Rawalpindi on April 15 during Pakistan's nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the coronavirus. (Photo: Farooq Naeem/AFP)

A Pakistani minister has hit out at a group of leading Islamic clerics after they brushed aside the government’s decision to extend a nationwide lockdown to stem the coronavirus.

The spat began after Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the continuation of the national shutdown by two weeks in a bid to slow the transmission of Covid-19 in the country.

"After consulting all the provinces, we have decided to extend the lockdown until April 30," Khan said in a televised address on April 14, adding that essential industries and the construction sector would be exempt from the ban.

 "I totally understand the hardships being faced by the poor due to the lockdown. That's why we have decided to move forward with a policy which cannot only ensure social distancing but also reduce the economic burden on the low-income class," Khan added.

Regarding the upcoming holy month of Ramadan, Khan said his government would invite clerics to discuss the matter.

Shortly after Khan’s statement, leaders of several Islamic groups gathered in Karachi and announced that they would resume daily prayers, Friday congregations and Ramadan prayers at mosques despite the lockdown.

Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman, who is also the head of Pakistan’s official moon-sighting body, said there was a deliberate attempt to targets mosques and religious community under the garb of the lockdown.

“If it is really necessary to open essential services, the reopening of mosques and seminaries is also our religious obligation which is sacred over everything else,” he said.

“We want to give a message to the government that there should be no obstacle to the opening of mosques. We also condemn police actions against mosque imams. One imam remains in jail. Security agencies should be taught manners that they cannot resort to violence in mosques.”    

Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, minister of science and technology in the federal cabinet, hit back at Rehman.

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“Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman is our elder. But with due respect, how can he be expected to spot the coronavirus when he can’t even sight such a large moon?” taunted Chaudhry, referring to his moon-sighting role that is often criticized for not relying on scientific knowledge in deciding major Islamic events. 

“I have also drawn the attention of the Religious Affairs Ministry that if the head of its ministerial committee will make a mockery of government’s orders, what can be expected from others,” added the minister.

Health experts have warned that the reopening of mosques will jeopardize government efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19, which has so far killed 111 people in Pakistan.

Overall, 6,383 people, including 1,055 members of Tablighi Jamaat, have tested positive for the virus, according to government figures.

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