Succumbing to pressure from the hardline clerics, the Pakistan government on Saturday allowed congregational prayers in mosques during the month of Ramazan, endangering the drive to curb the spread of coronavirus that has killed more than 154,000 people worldwide.
President Dr Arif Alvi made the announcement after a meeting with religious leaders and political representatives of all provinces. Alvi said a 20-point plan has been agreed upon.
"It is an important agreement and it has been reached after consensus among all religious leaders, he said.
The clerics have agreed to follow the government guidelines on social distancing while praying in mosques.
According to the agreement, people above the age of 50, minors and those suffering from flu will not be allowed to enter mosques.
Taraweeh (special prayers) should not be conducted on roads, footpaths and anywhere else other than mosques.
All carpets in mosques would be removed and the floor regularly mopped with disinfectants. The worshippers must maintain a distance of six feet when praying and people should wear face masks and avoid shaking hands or embracing others.
Alvi said if the government felt at any point that the guidelines were being violated or the disease was spreading, then it can re-consider its decision regarding the opening of mosques.
The Pakistan government had banned congregational prayers in mosques but the decision was only partly followed.
Those participated in the meeting include Jamaat-i-Islami chief Senator Sirajul Haq, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith chief Senator Sajid Mir and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader Rana Tanveer Hussain.
Tablighi Jamaat chief Maulana Nazarur Rehman had earlier appealed to his followers to abide by the government precautionary measures.
However, Ruet-i-Hilal Committee chairman Mufti Muneebur Rehman and Mufti Taqi Usmani had taken a hard line against the government limitations on number of people during collective prayers.
Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri also appealed to clerics to take the coronavirus threat seriously, warning them that they would be held accountable if the number of patients and death toll multiplied.
"If the situation goes out of hand, people will target religious scholars in their criticism, he said.
The Islamabad administration is already facing a direct challenge from Maulana Abdul Aziz who not only held large congregations at almost every prayer but also claimed in online posts that he would continue to lead the collective prayers.
Pakistan's coronavirus cases on Saturday rose to over 7,500. The Ministry of National Health Services reported that 143 people have died so far including eight on Friday.
Last month, the Grand Imam Shaikh of Egypt's Jamia Al Azhar, an authority on Islamic injunctions, and the Supreme Council in Egypt issued a fatwa (religious edict) on the request of President Alvi, empowering the head of the state to suspend Friday prayers in the wake of the virus outbreak.
The fatwa said that public gatherings, including congregational prayers at mosques, could result in spread of coronavirus and the governments of Muslim countries had full jurisdiction to cancel such events.
Several countries including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt have stopped congregational prayers.
In several Arab countries, the 'azaan' (call for prayer) has been amended and now it urges people to pray in their homes.
Early this week, Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Dr Abdul Latif Al Sheikh asked people to perform the special 'taraweeh' prayers at their homes during the month of Ramazan in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Saudi Arabia last month suspended congregational prayers across all mosques in the country, except for the two grand mosques in Mecca and Medina where only staff members are allowed to enter inside the premises.
Taraweeh prayers are performed by Muslims at night during Ramazan, which will start later this month. Millions across the world, including India, perform the taraweeh prayers at mosques during the month of Ramazan.
Separately, Pakistan extended the suspension of international and domestic flight operations till April 30, a spokesperson of Aviation Division said in a statement.
The operations were suspended last month due to increasing fears of the coronavirus patients.