A handful of masajid in Cape Town have decided to remain closed, despite the easing of restrictions on congregational religious activity. On Tuesday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that places of worship will be reopened from the 1 June, as part of level 3 of lockdown regulations. However, he said religious spaces must ensure strict hygiene and social distancing measures – in a bid to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. Following a meeting with religious leaders last week, Ramaphosa acknowledged the profound role played by faith-based communities during this time of distress.
In the wake of the announcement, there’s been stark criticism of the decision, as South Africa has not yet reached the peak of the virus. Furthermore, with the Western Cape identified as the epicentre of the virus, there are fears that communal prayer will further exacerbate cluster outbreaks in the province. In practical terms, there are looming questions as to whether mosques will be able to adhere to government regulations, given the financial and space constraints placed on many masajid. Amongst these measures are that only 50 or less congregants are allowed and regular sanitisation must take place. With uncertainty over how communal prayer will be managed, many mosques have also taken proactive decisions to keep their doors closed, until the virus shows signs of abating.
The Claremont Main Road Mosque said it had taken “a solemn and difficult decision” to not open the mosque under the current guidelines. The decision was based on a risk assessment and a review of “reasonable risk mitigation measures” to contain the transmission of the coronavirus within the space of the masjid.
“We will regularly review our decision going forward and in discussion with public health experts. We have carefully considered this step as a continued proactive measure to minimise the risk of spreading the virus. In taking this decision we are guided by the supreme objectives of the Sharīʿah, foremost of which is the preservation of life,” said the mosque’s board, in a statement.
On Wednesday evening, the Imamat of Bridgetown masjid said it will stay closed until further notice and will continuously consult medical doctors. Bridgetown forms part of the Klipfontein region, which according to the latest statistics, has recorded 2071 COVID19 cases. The region is a hotspot for the virus in the province.
Following consultation with its legal team on Wednesday, the Al Azhar masjid in District Six – which draws many congregants who work in the CBD to Jumuah – will not open its doors either.
“It was a difficult decision, but we had to consider the logistics, the protocols, risk mitigation and public safety. We had a robust debate amongst our members but we came to sufficient consensus that we must remain closed until such time that the pandemic is not as vigorous as it is now. We took advice from Shariah’, medical experts and our social activism structures,” said Igshaan Higgins, legal advisor to the masjid.
Other mosques such as Azzavia masjid in Walmer Estate, Masjid Munowar in Retreat, Masjidul Nasrullah in Belhar and Harvey Road masjid in Claremont will also stay closed, with the latter saying it “will not be able to follow sanitation procedures to ensure the safety of musallees and the community.” This telling statement reflects the immense pressure placed on smaller masajid, who are already under financial constraints, to ensure protocols are followed.
Mufti Sayed Haroon Al Azhari from the CTIEC Cape Town Ulama Board said in a fatwa on Wednesday night, only masājid that are logistically able to resume prayer under stringent measures to protect musallies and to limit the spread of this virus, should open.
“Thus, our decision is that we should continue to be proactive and continue taking the necessary precautionary measures to limit community outbursts as much as possible. Accordingly, keeping in-line with our original decision, we request our Musallies to perform their Salāhs at home (especially if their Masājid are unable to be compliant with the government regulations). In such a situation, prevention is better than cure.”
While the MJC is expected to outline guidelines for masajid this week, the Islamic Medical Association said in a statement that despite the best efforts, the spreading of the coronavirus was inevitable.
“From an epidemic perspective, we need to note that in some areas, we may be able to take full advantage of this number, where there is a low prevalence of this disease, but in other areas we may need exercise further caution and have smaller congregations, where there is a higher disease prevalence,” said the IMA.
“We are fully aware that despite the best recommendations, and the most stringent measures, there is unfortunately no guarantee that we will be able to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. The risk of the virus spreading is higher in closed environments. The situation may be even more detrimental if proper procedures are not adhered to.”
The IMA said masjid committees have an enormous responsibility on their shoulders to take the best measures possible within the limits of their capabilities to limit spread.
“The environmental and structural condition of the mosque (or jamaat khana/musalaah) and the social circumstances of the community; disease burden and trajectory of new cases as well as the ability of the local mosque to adhere to minimal criteria for infection prevention – are important consideration in influencing the masjids committees’ decision with respect to the immediate re-opening of the masjid or taking a phased approach.”
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