President George Weah’s recent announcement to reopen religious centers, amid the country’s coronavirus pandemic, has resulted in divided opinions between two leaders of the Muslim Community in Liberia. With 229 confirmed cases and at least 22 deaths reported from the COVID-19 center, President Weah last weekend ordered the reopening of churches and mosques months after being closed since March 22.
While some Muslims have welcomed the decision by President Weah as Ramadan feast day draws near, others sharing the views of healthcare workers argue that the decision puts worshippers at greater risk of being infected.
A prominent supporter of the latter, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abubakar Sumaworo, has argued that since COVID-19 was the cause for the closure of mosques across the country, “it has to remain closed.”
Sumaworo, who is the Grand Mufti of the Islamic Community in Liberia, added that the reopening of mosques could further intensify the spread of the disease among the wider population because preventive measures including wearing of masks and social distancing might be hard to follow in the mosque during prayers.
“We the Imams prefer that mosques should remain closed yet until the departure of the coronavirus. [In a situation like this], it is better for Muslims to stay home and pray and not allow strange people among them. This is what we have resolved,” said Sumaworo.
Grand Mufti Sumaworo’s remark came after meeting with Imams and members of the Liberian Muslim Scholars at the National Muslim Council of Liberia (NMCL) Headquarters in the Old Road suburb of Monrovia on May 14.
Sumaworo further argues that the opening of mosques accepting only 25 percent of worshipers for Friday’s prayers with the rest remaining home is “violation of the Islamic principle” since participation in Friday prayers is “compulsory for every Muslim.
But contrary to Sumaworo’s argument, Chief Imam for Liberia, Sheikh Ali Krayee, who had earlier criticized the government for closure of religious centers, has backed the President’s call for the reopening of mosques after a long period of closure.
In a statement issued recently, Imam Krayee said after meeting with officials of the National Imam Council, Muslim Council, and senior Muslim officials in government, including the Minister of Internal Affairs, Varney Sirleaf, and the Islamic Affairs Advisor to the President, Hon. Usmane Jalloh, they have agreed that mosques should reopen but with adherence to preventative health protocols.
Imam Krayee added that there will be ‘Taraweeh;’ ritual performed by Muslims at night after the Isha prayer during the Holy Month of Ramadan.
“Mosque authorities should ensure that all those going for prayers wear face masks and that everyone should own their prayer mats, and no more than 25% of regular worshippers will be allowed in the mosque at a time.
According to the Imam, Mosque authorities will adhere to the 25% policy by printing tickets to be given to those entering the mosque in keeping with the 25% policy and ensuring that hand-washing buckets are available where people will be made to wash their hands before they are given kettles for ablution.
“Temperature of people will be checked where possible before they are allowed to enter the mosque,” he said.
Imam Krayee contends that these measures will minimize the spread of the virus among Muslims, and it will be enforced by a special task force to be set up in every mosque to ensure that they are strictly followed.
What prompted the President’s closure decision
The recent move by President Weah to announce the reopening of worship centers came after heavy criticisms from some religious leaders who argued that the ban infringed on their constitutional rights, which guarantee freedom of worship.
The religious leaders argue that the closure of religious centers was unnecessary because they are capable of following preventive health protocols including strict adherence to social distancing and frequent hand-washing as unfavorably compared to marketplaces and that have been struggling to follow these health guidelines.
In his remarks on the reopening of religious centers, President Weah told the Liberian people that his decision was done in consultation with religious leaders themselves.
President Weah said: “Following calls from religious leaders, Churches, and Mosques are considered to commence their operations beginning Sunday, May 17, 2020, with 25 percent of the regular worship-hour occupancy for each service at a time, which will allow for social distancing and other protocols such as the use of face coverings and hand-washing to be observed.”
What has been healthcare workers reaction
President Weah’s decision to allow the reopening religious centers has apparently angered frontline health workers, particularly those from the Montserrado Country health team struggling to combat the rising incidence of the COVID-19 in Liberia.
Montserrado, which is the most populated county in Liberia, continues to be the country’s worst-hit region, accounting for more than half of the total confirmed cases.
”We are seeing an increase in cases because people are not following the preventive measures and yet, the government has decided to make the situation worse,” said health care workers who spoke to this paper on conditions of anonymity.
Healthcare workers predict that the future appears dim under current circumstances and, many are of the opinion that reopening churches and mosques will reverse the gains that have been made.
“Now that religious centers are about to reopen, we are back to that same exponential trajectory in March, a situation which, in return, put a strain on the country’s already struggling health care system that has already been dealt cruel financial and psychological blows from the first wave. And it is going to happen because we have limited security personnel to enforce the wearing of masks and social distancing protocol in religious centers. Once these measures are being disregarded in public, it will happen in the churches and mosques,” maintained the healthcare workers.