Muslims in Egypt flock to mosques for Friday prayers despite coronavirus fears

Ayat Al Tawy , Friday 20 Mar 2020

The duration of Friday prayers has been reduced, but the government has stopped short of shuttering mosques

Muslims wearing protective face masks do the Friday prayers inside Al-Azhar mosque in the old Islamic area of Cairo while Egypt ramps up its efforts to slow down the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Cairo, Egypt March 20, 2020 (Photo: Reuters)

Egypt’s top Muslim clerics have issued religious advice allowing people to avoid religious gatherings and pray at home due to the coronavirus outbreak, but on Friday, many worshippers chose to crowd into Cairo’s mosques for weekly prayers.

“I never wish to see any mosque empty. Throughout my life I have always [performed] the Friday prayers in the mosque,” Adel Ibrahim, 65, told Ahram Online at a mosque in 6 October city, a suburb west of the capital.

“Only what God has written for us will happen,” he said.

Egypt has imposed restrictions on the duration of mass prayers and the length of sermons, and halted all other gatherings at mosques, including funeral and marriage services. It has also closed schools, universities, and limited mass gatherings.

Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s top religious institution, said earlier this week that it is “permissible” for authorities to halt Friday congregations and mass prayers to limit the spread of the virus, and religious officials have called on the elderly and on ill people to stay at home.

But the country, however, has stopped short of shuttering mosques. And many Muslims, like Ibrahim, say they trust in God to keep them safe.

Several people reported long lines or said crowds at mosques in several parts of Cairo were “like usual,” but stressed the sermons were noticeably shorter. Many worshippers were seen wearing face masks or gloves. 

State TV, which broadcasts the weekly Friday prayers live, showed believers at a central Cairo mosque crowding at the door to get their temperature measured.

At a mosque in the upscale district of Mohandiseen, one worshiper said he was not concerned about the disease.

“We should get closer to God so he can rid us of the epidemic. I have my face mask and brought my own mat,” said Essam Hassan, 59.

Egypt has reported 256 confirmed coronavirus cases, including seven deaths.

The country’s religious endowments ministry announced Thursday it would close mosques’ restrooms and wudu sites, where Muslims carry out pre-prayer purification, to minimise the risk of virus transmission.

Ministry official Gaber Tayei said the faithful should perform their ritual ablution at home, maintain space between one another while praying and leave mosques right after the prayers.

“When we reach a vision to close mosques after considering all political, religious, health and security aspects, we will take the decision at the right time,” said Tayei, who chairs the ministry’s religious department.

Religious gatherings in other countries have been linked to hundreds of coronavirus cases.

In Iran, which has seen one of the worst outbreaks of the virus outside China, some cases were linked to pilgrimage sites for Shia Muslims in the holy city of Qom.

Online footage showed worshippers there licking and kissing shrines at local religious sites, defying advice by health ministry officials to avoid touching surfaces.

In Malaysia, a single religious gathering late in February has been linked to over 600 infections.

Saudi Arabia earlier this week closed mosques for the customary five daily prayers and to Friday congregations to stem the spread of the virus. Oman also did the same.

Some in Egypt seem to be aware of the risk.

“I was worried [about the virus] because there is always a large gathering of people in a small area,” said Ahmed Magdy, 30, about the Friday congregations. “Since the fatwa allowing those who fear for themselves to avoid mass prayers, I took it as a green light to not go.”

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