Islamabad, Pakistan – A lack of consensus between religious leaders and the Pakistani government has seen Friday congregational prayers still being held at some mosques across the country, in defiance of government guidelines on social distancing amidst the coronavirus outbreak.
In the capital, Islamabad, hundreds gathered at the Red Mosque, led by hardline religious leader Abdul Aziz, to offer prayers, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and filling the mosque’s main hall to capacity.
Reports indicated that congregational prayers were also held at major mosques in other cities, with varying levels of social distancing.
Aziz, who led an armed standoff between his followers and the government that culminated in Pakistani soldiers raiding 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 had told Al Jazeera. “We believe the people should not be made to fear things right now, they should have faith in God at this time, and to place their hope in him … If death is written for you, then it will come.”
Pakistan has seen at least 7,008 coronavirus cases so far, with at least 134 deaths, according to the government’s data. At least 1,757 patients have recovered.
Earlier this week, Pakistan’s government eased a nationwide lockdown, reopening more than a dozen industries and categories of businesses in a bid to stave off spiralling unemployment and economic slowdown caused by the lockdown.
Mosques, however, were advised to restrict congregational prayers to a maximum of five people, all of whom were required to be staff members residing within the mosque’s premises.
Police stood guard outside the Red Mosque in Islamabad, but did not intervene when the crowd formed inside.
A police official at the scene, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera they did not have orders to stop people.
Asked whether congregants should be asked to maintain distance between them in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Aziz was adamant.
“Our stance is against this. [Doctors’] opinion is not the word of God, that is their opinion,” he said. “It is our opinion that this is a punishment from God, and it is coming because we have filled the world with sins.”
Pledge to reopen mosques rescinded
On Tuesday, religious leaders from more than a dozen prominent religious organisations signed a pledge to reopen their mosques, while promising to take precautions against the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The order was rescinded on Thursday, with several religious leaders who were present at the Tuesday announcement saying they were entering into negotiations with the government to develop standard operating procedures to reopen the mosques safely.
“In grocery stores, people are gathering in crowds and is there no corona[virus] there?” Muneeb-ur-Rehman, a prominent religious leader, told Al Jazeera on Friday. “This is just a movement to try and target religion and mosques.”
“If the issue is gathering, and if people gather in other places according to an SOP [Standard Operating Procedure], then we can do that in the mosque as well. Please end the hate against the mosque.”
Rehman is among a number of senior Muslim leaders due to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday to lay out regulations on how the mosques will operate during the coronavirus pandemic.
In other mosques in Islamabad, Muslim leaders enforced social distancing guidelines.
“Whoever wants to come can attend the prayers,” said Saeed-ur-Rehman, a prayer leader at a mosque in the city’s F-11 neighbourhood. “We have told our congregants about all of the steps they need to take.”
At another prominent mosque in the city’s F-8 neighbourhood, normally packed for midday prayers on Friday, there were roughly 40 worshippers gathered, all sitting nearly six metres apart from one another.
“We are following all the advices on distancing given by the government,” said Ghulam Nabi Janbaz, a member of staff at the mosque.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.