Pakistan madrasas reopen despite coronavirus concerns

Officials are reluctant to interfere with the Quranic schools, which educate millions of children for free

Before Pakistan announced its coronavirus lockdown, the Masjid-e-Muhammad madrasa run by instructor Muhammad Suleman in Islamabad taught 150 students the holy Quran. Less than a quarter have returned since the lockdown lifted, with concerns over the spread of the virus prompting some religious authorities to delay reopening their schools.

But others have prioritised coming back to class even as cases rise. Sitting barefoot on the floor of the seminary’s mosque, wearing a white skullcap with a flowing beard, Mr Suleman recites the Quran, his body swaying back and forth. Every two minutes he instructs the students in attendance to read louder.

"The number of students in this seminary of the mosque, named Masjid-e-Muhammad, is now reduced to 35 from 150 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We had students who attended this seminary from many cities all over Pakistan – most of them have not come back since we restarted the classes," Mr Suleman told The National.

The seminary reopened on June 3, after the end of a national coronavirus lockdown that began on March 10, with social distancing measures in place and students required to wear masks. However, Wafaq-ul-Madaris Al-Arabia Pakistan, the country’s most powerful religious education board, said it has not formally resumed on-campus curriculum activities across around 3,000 madrasas under its umbrella.

"We have decided not to reopen madrasas across Pakistan due to the massive spread of the coronavirus. Those seminaries which have resumed studies might be following social distancing. However we don't want any confrontation with the state for reopening seminaries," Wafaq's spokesperson Maulana Abdul Quddus, told The National.

A decision will be taken at a later date, he said.

Pakistan has witnessed a huge spike in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. As of Tuesday, the South Asian country had recorded more than 148,000 Covid-19 cases and 2,800 related deaths.

There are concerns over the spread of the virus in the country's madrasas and rumours that cases have been covered up. But the clerics are powerful people in Pakistan and the government is reluctant to shut the madrasas down.

"Gatherings are hotspots of spreading the coronavirus and the government has not ordered the reopening of education institutions and seminaries," Amir Rana, head of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies told The National.

“The government should take strict action against the seminaries operating amid this pandemic and the writ of the state should be followed,” he said.

Seminary staff in institutions that have reopened say safety precautions are in place and distancing guidelines are being followed.

"The virus can spread anywhere… Our students are following the standard operating procedures. We are asking heart patients and elderly people to go back and pray at home," Muhammad Ibrahim, the head of Masjid-e-Muhammad madrasa told The National.

Officials are reluctant to comment on the seminaries, which are a sensitive issue in Pakistan's conservative society. For millions of children from poor households, they are the only way of accessing education, with about 3.5 million students enrolled in more than 30,000 seminaries across the country.

Most are boarding schools where children aged seven to 18 from poor families receive free learning, meals and accommodation. Many are run through donations and some are housed in a single room, making it difficult to implement social-distancing guidelines.

“Young children being educated in madrasas often break social-distancing rules and can spread the virus in a boarding school environment,” said Dr Qaiser Sajjad, Secretary General Pakistan Medical Association. “We have no idea how many children in the seminaries are infected as it's a very sensitive issue to touch.”

In April, Pakistani authorities sealed the Bab-ul-Islam seminary in Islamabad when its cleric Qasim Ali Shah and seven of his family members tested positive for Covid-19. Mr Shah, who has since recovered, was reportedly infected when he participated in the burial of his father.

But other influential voices feel that religious education should not be put on hold. "This is a sensitive topic in Pakistan and lockdown is not the option; it destroys the lives of many people," Maulana Abdul Aziz, a cleric and the former head of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, said in an interview with The National.

“Despite the closure of many things, cases are still coming rapidly and ethics with Islamic education should be taught to the society. Government strategy has failed to deal with the situation,” he added.

Huzaifa Amin, a 16-year-old student at the Masjid-e-Muhammad mosque seminary, told  The National he hadn't noticed any of his classmates showing signs of infection. "I have been admitted in this seminary for three years and completed memorising the Quran and repeating it and have not seen any student with the symptoms of coronavirus."

But health officials have warned that a failure to follow social-distancing guidelines risks contributing to a surge in cases that could overburden the country’s already fragile healthcare system.

Pakistan is an interactive society, where millions attend community prayers at mosques each week followed by handshakes and hugs as friends and family embrace loved ones in the congregation.

Despite pleas from the state asking people to stay at home, the streets in the world’s fifth most-populous country are still teeming with people.

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