Two deaths from coronavirus have been directly linked to one of Pakistan’s largest annual religious gatherings in Raiwind—but the group that organises it has not reined in its preachers.
Each year, the Tablighi Jamaat holds several massive gatherings or ijtimas on the outskirts of Lahore. This year an estimated 250,000 men converged there on March 11, despite warnings from the Punjab government as COVID-19 was spreading. The ijtima was suspended the next day, but rain was given as the official reason.
By March 29, tests came positive for the virus in 27 members of the Jamaat, Dawn newspaper reported. And after another member, a young Chinese man, was also diagnosed with coronavirus, at least 200 people were placed in isolation at Hyderabad city’s Noor Mosque in Wahdat Colony. Health officials had to call in the paramilitary Rangers and police to enter the mosque to collect nasal swabs. The Sindh health department has confirmed that over 50 members of the Tablighi Jamaat were diagnosed with the virus.
When more than a dozen members of the Tablighi Jamaat tested positive in Islamabad last week, several parts of the city were sealed, Islamabad Deputy Commissioner Hamza Shafqaat confirmed to SAMAA Digital.
By Monday, March 30, one man who had attended the Raiwind ijtima and another, whose son had attended it, were both dead in Karachi. The spokesperson for Sindh’s health minister, Meeran Yousuf, confirmed this.
The government swung into action and contacted the leaders of the Jamaat in Raiwind. The Jamaat then issued orders, telling members to suspend their activities across the country. But despite the orders, some of its local groups are still roaming freely, violating the lockdowns instituted in the provinces.
For example, a Karachi-based journalist, who has family in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Mardan, told SAMAA Digital that groups of up to nine men had been visiting Duryal village for the past couple of days. “Locals contacted them and said they should stop,” the journalist said. “They refused to stop preaching and said, ‘Ye sab dollar ka chakkar hai…drama hai (this is all about the dollar rate…it is staged).”
In response, Mardan’s administration quarantined at least 169 people at the Tableeghi Jamaat’s markaz in the city. Deputy Commissioner Abid Khan Wazir told reporters Monday that three foreigners have been tested positive for the virus.
The leaders of the Tablighi Jamaat do not speak to the media and thus it was not possible to seek their comment. But Abdul Jabbar Nasir, who has been reporting on religious groups for years, shed light on their network and reach, saying that while its markaz or headquarters is located in Raiwind, mosques in several areas across Pakistan also function as local markazes. So even if Raiwind shuts down preaching, this does not mean satellite mosques are following suit.
“For example, members of the Tablighi Jamaat in Karachi gather in Karachi’s Madni Masjid on Thursday,” said Nasir. “There, groups are made and responsibilities are handed out.”
One person is made an emir of a group which then departs for three- or ten-day trips to proselytise. Nasir believes that sometimes groups in far-flung areas are difficult to communicate with and it could take hours or days to send them a message. “There is no mechanism to contact groups across the country but every single person takes responsibility and conveys the message to their contacts.”
The coronavirus has killed at least 25 people in Pakistan and 1,865 people have tested positive so far.