Leeds faith leader calls for public worship to continue during lockdown

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A leading Leeds imam has joined other faith leaders in calling on the Government to reconsider its decision to restrict places of worship during the upcoming second lockdown in England.

Qari Asim, of Makkah Mosque in Hyde Park, said finding a way of keeping mosques open was of “paramount importance” and should be considered “essential”, along with other services.

Imam Asim was speaking as the archbishops of Canterbury and York, together with the Bishop of London, wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson asking for public worship to continue.

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The letter was also signed by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols.

Qari Asim, imam at Makkah Mosque.Qari Asim, imam at Makkah Mosque.
Qari Asim, imam at Makkah Mosque.

Imam Asim, who is a Government adviser on Islamophobia, told the PA news agency: “The complete cessation of communal prayer and worship is a matter of concern for Muslim communities.”

He said there was no evidence of Covid outbreaks in mosques and said they “serve not only the spiritual and religious needs of the Muslim community but also they help maintain the mental wellbeing of the community as well”.

The imam said mosques would be willing to consider limits on numbers and more stringent definitions of social distancing.

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He said: “The fundamental difference with a mosque is that we pray as a congregation. That doesn’t mean that we need to have hundreds of people.

“And if the Government want to put in limits on the number of people, we can accommodate that.”

He added: “If other ‘essential’ places are opened for wellbeing and for the needs of the people, then places of worship should be considered in the same category.”

Imam Asim said: “We totally understand the need to stem Covid-19 and the need to save lives.

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“This is not about people of faith simply saying everything else has to be closed and we want to stay open.”

According to new Government guidance, places of worship will be closed from Thursday, unless they are being used for funerals, individual prayer, formal childcare or other essential voluntary and public services such as support groups.

The letter to Mr Johnson from archbishops Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell and the other faith leaders on Tuesday said: “We understand entirely that the country faces significant challenges and the reasons behind the government’s decision to bring in new measures.

“But we strongly disagree with the decision to suspend public worship during this time.

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“We have had reaffirmed, through the bitter experience of the last six months, the critical role that faith plays in moments of tremendous crisis, and we believe public worship is essential.”

Chair of the Sikh Federation (UK) Bhai Amrik Singh said two of the most important events in the Sikh calendar fall in the lockdown period and added: “It appears the Government ignored the needs of the Sikh community.”

Mr Singh said the concept of individual prayer is a “nonsense” in Sikh worship.

He said: “We are deeply concerned about social isolation, the impact on mental health and personal wellbeing as Government do not regard worship as a fundamental right and see it as non-essential compared to other gatherings they are allowing to continue.”

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A group of 71 church leaders from different Christian traditions said on Tuesday they had agreed to start a legal challenge to the Government’s decision to close churches.

One of those behind the challenge, the Rev Matthew Roberts – minister of Trinity Church, York – said: “For a nation which is trying to preserve life to ban people from worshipping, hearing from and praying to the one who gives life and restores life is folly of the highest order. It also overturns centuries of the laws, values and traditions of the whole of the UK.”

After the Prime Minister’s announcement at the weekend, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said it was writing to the Government to outline its concerns and “call for an urgent evidence-based reassessment of the status of places of worship, taking into account the societal harms closing them poses”.

The MCB said in a statement: “There is no apparent evidence that places of worship have been a primary driver for the virus’ propagation.

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“Given the centrality of congregational prayer to so many Muslims’ lives, it is not clear why places of worship are grouped alongside other public venues where social interaction is conducted very differently.”