Lahore, Pakistan | Tue, May 4, 2021 | 8.02 pm
Thousands of Shia Muslim devotees many not wearing masks gathered in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore for a religious procession on Tuesday, fanning fears about the spread of the coronavirus after similar crowds were blamed in neighbouring India for its own surge.
The federal government had released an order prohibiting mass gatherings to commemorate the death of Prophet Mohammad’s companion and son-in-law Imam Ali, but local religious leaders were unable to reach an agreement. Religious events in India in recent weeks, including the Kumbh Mela, which drew millions of pilgrims, have been blamed for sparking one of the pandemic’s worst crises to date, which Pakistan is closely monitoring with increasing fear.
“I have been attending this procession every year for as long as I can recall,” Ali Kazmi, 28, said from Lahore, where officials estimated that between eight and ten thousand worshippers took part. “They use various excuses to prevent Shia mourning ceremonies and processions. It is (coronavirus) today; previously, it was a security problem. It’s all just a bunch of excuses.” Pakistan’s Shia sect accounts for roughly 20% of the country’s 220 million citizens. In major cities across the world, smaller processions were also organized.
Devotees dressed in black shouted slogans and slapped their heads in unison, while others were whipped with knives. In a statement issued ahead of the rally, Pakistan’s Shia Ulema Council said, “We reject any restriction put on mourning ceremonies; your local elections can take place, your markets can open, and your government meetings can take place.” A police official in Lahore said they tried to negotiate with clerics and religious leaders over the procession, but they refused to budge.
Security however was still provided.
With over 800,000 cases and 18,000 deaths recorded, Pakistan is struggling to control a third wave of infections. Just a small percentage of the population has received vaccinations. In recent months, Pakistani authorities have largely resisted cracking down on religious practices. During large nightly gatherings of worshippers, mosques have remained open throughout the month of Ramadan, with few adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Private gatherings, stores, and restaurants, on the other hand, have been subjected to severe controls, with the army being called in to assist in enforcing the law. The government has also declared a ban on cross-provincial travel as well as closures of hotels and tourist attractions for more than a week during Eid celebrations, which typically see a surge of people moving around the world.