Imams and religious scholars in Blackburn have claimed mosques have been ‘unfairly targeted’ during the pandemic.

In a joint statement sent by Jaame Masjid, Cumberland Street and listing 30 imams and mosque representatives, Blackburn with Darwen Council is accused of failing ‘to provide adequate and correct guidance to places of worship’.

The council said they were very ‘disappointed to receive the letter’ and their ‘overriding concern is to ensure the safety of all our communities and get the virus under control.’ The council said they would be responding to all the issues raised in detail soon.

The Lancashire Council of Mosques (LCM) said they had no knowledge of the letter nor does the letter list all the mosques in Blackburn. It was however endorsed by 16 mosques which include some of the larger mosques in the town.

It raised a number of points and was released after earlier letters were sent to mosques from the Council’s Public Protection Team about ‘concerns about some places of worship lacking Covid security measures’.

In a letter specific to the Jaame Masjid the Public Protection team said ‘it was clear that there were a number of issues and concerns that we identified, which need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. It is imperative that the mosque puts into place measures that protect all people who visit the premises.’

In response a statement from Asif Karolia sent to the Director of Environment and Operation said: “We are contacting you on behalf of Jaame Masjid (Central Mosque) Blackburn to express our extreme disappointment at the failure of the Council to engage constructively with the mosques of Blackburn and for unfairly targeting them, and in that process misrepresenting the Regulations (Law) and Government Guidance.

'We recognise that the Regulations (Law) and Government Guidance pertaining to Covid-19 and Places of Worship are regularly changing, complex, confusing, open to interpretation and sometimes the Government Guidance directly conflicts with the Regulations.'

It adds: ‘Threatening enforcement action and closure is not conducive to constructive engagement and we sincerely hope the Council avoids such language in the future.’

The statement lists a number of points on issues relating to the ‘2 metre rule’ and whether concerns about the ruling were also being directed at schools. And how ‘it is not the role of a place of worship to police the behaviour of all attendees’.

It points out how calls by the Public Protection team to ensure there should be “regular announcements reminding people not to shake hands or hug and how ‘volunteers should challenge anyone not following these rules’ did not take into account whether these people ‘may be from the same household or the same support bubble’.

And adds: ‘Many people hug each other outdoors and at shopping centres. We would appreciate if the Council can confirm if it has issued similar advice to retail stores to challenge those who hug each other.’

There were also questions on why all ‘Qurans should be out of bounds’. The council advice said, “The use of Qurans can increase the time people spend in the mosque and therefore increases the risk of transmission.”

To which the mosque statement says: ‘Worshippers are at liberty to spend as much time as they want in places of worship. To connect the use of the Quran with the time people spend in the mosques and the risk of transmission is not only baseless and illogical, it is wrong and contravenes the Government Guidance.’

The statement also claims that in July 2020, the Jamia Ghosia mosque on Chester Street ‘was wrongly and unfairly targeted by the Council for having a funeral prayer’. 

It was reported that mosque hosted a funeral on July 13 where in the region of 250 people turned-up when rules state there should be no more than 30. The imam from the mosque tested positive for Covid-19 and all attendees were also asked to self-isolate.

The statement calls for the council to ‘set the record straight in relation to the Jamia Ghosia Mosque incident and confirm that it did not breach Covid-19 rules.’

This pertains to a suggestion that congregational funeral prayer for the deceased could be seen as ‘’communal worship’. The number of attendees is not limited to 30 but depends on the capacity of a place of worship and social distancing.  

The Jamia Ghosia Mosque, (Chester Street) were contacted for a comment.

The mosque statement concludes, ‘The Council regains the trust of our congregation and many other Muslims and mosques within the borough’. It says the Council should engage constructively and directly with grassroots organisations like ours and understand and appreciate the practical challenges before issuing advices and threats. We are ready to engage with the Council in this regard. Our shared mission is to safeguard all the people of our borough’.

The letter goes on to add ‘We would also like to place on record our thanks and appreciation to all the public and private sector bodies including voluntary groups, Places of Worships, the Council, the Police and the NHS for their hard work during these challenging times and pray to Allah (God) to remove this pandemic from us.’

Five Muslim charities last night have said they ‘concur with the recommendations mentioned in the mosques letter.

The Ummah Welfare Trust (UWT); Muslim Welfare Institute (MWI); Blackburn UK Trust; Al-Imdaad Foundation UK and Al-Mohsineen Charitable Trust said in a statement of their own they had been ‘working hard since the beginning of the pandemic to support hospitals, GP clinics, faith centres and local community associations in Blackburn and other parts of the UK and across the world.’ 

What the Public Protection team said to mosques

A letter sent to Mosques from the Public Protection team on March 5 said, ‘there have been reports and concerns about the lack of Covid security measures in these settings.’ 

It went on to say point out ‘five key problems areas’ which included Volunteers - Ensure you have enough people to help during prayer times; Masks - Ensure face coverings are worn by everyone in the mosque unless an exemption applies;  Spacing - To try to keep people 2 metres apart at all time; Hand hygiene - Avoid having common hand touch points (for example door handles). Provide hand sanitiser and Ventilation - Keeping the mosque well ventilated to avoid the build-up of stale air carrying viruses. 

The letter went on to add that ‘the Council wants to support the work of the mosques in our community and also has a duty to protect its residents. We are here to support, help and offer guidance to mosques. Therefore, public protection visits to check Covid security will continue.
‘Should we find a risk to health from the transmission of the virus, the Council may consider taking formal action to bring about the adequate protection for people working at the mosque and members of the community visiting it. This could include issuing a direction to restrict or even prevent access to the premises.’ 

The Council advice adds that ‘The Muslim Council of Britain has some excellent resources on their website (COVID-19 Guidance for Muslim Communities - Muslim Council of Britain) and ‘This includes it’s MCB’s 9-Step Guide to Re-opening Mosques Safely.’