Friday prayers have been canceled at many mosques in Israel and the Palestinian Authority due to the coronavirus outbreak, while Israel police closed off some gates leading to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem to prevent mass Friday prayer.
The Council of Imams and other leading Muslim clerics said this week that all mosque services should be canceled until the crisis ends, backing the decision with quotes from the Koran and the prophet Mohammed.
In an unprecedented move, they also urged muezzins not to call the faithful to prayer, but instead to urge them to pray at home.
However, Israel Police partially closed most of the gates of the Old City on Friday morning to minimize the number of worshipers for the Friday noon prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Temple Mount, only allowing the area's residents to pass after crossing a checkpoint.
Many hundreds of worshipers attended the Friday morning prayer on the Temple Mount, most of whom made sure to stand apart from each other and remained outside. However, due to the rain, several dozen worshipers crowded in covered areas near the Al-Aqsa Mosque, despite the Health Ministry's instructions.
Three gates, the Gate of the Tribes, Council Gate and Chain Gate, remained open.
The Waqf, the Islamic trust in charge of the site, said that only about 500 people were praying at the Al-Aqsa on Friday.
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On a normal Friday, dozens of buses bring people to the holy compound from Arab towns across the country. Now, clerics are urging people to come in their own cars.
The Waqf also decided earlier this week that the compound’s buildings will be closed, so prayers will only be held in the outdoor section of the compound. And even then, it said, worshippers should maintain strict hygiene and keep their distance from each other.
The clerics’ letter also urged people to limit the number of guests at funerals and banned setting up mourning tents or receiving condolence visits.
Dr. Mohammed Salameh, one of the signatories of the clerics’ letter, said it was impossible for them to ignore the Health Ministry’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, and especially with regard to the mass prayer services typically held at mosques on Fridays.
The Muslim clerics’ ruling echoes a similar one issued by Christian clerics. Many churches have cancelled Sunday mass as well as the special services for Lent, which began last week. Church leaders urged their congregants to obey the Health Ministry’s instructions and avoid large groups, and many priests are insisting that funerals be kept small.
In several Arab Israeli cities on Friday, including Nazareth, local authorities patrolled the areas and called on residents to follow instructions not to conduct mass prayers. Also, in Baka al-Garbiyeh, there were calls to close the mosques in the city and start praying at home. In the city of Rahat, the police intervened at a local mosque and sought to close it in order to prevent mass gatherings.
This comes despite the fact that mayors of leading Arab cities, including Nazareth, Rahat, Taibe and Umm al-Fahm, have banned mass prayer at mosques. In some cities, municipal inspectors are patrolling the streets and calling on people to stay inside via loudspeakers.Towns have also banned restaurants and cafes from opening and suspended cultural activities; only stores selling essential products remain open.
It should be noted that, unlike the Al-Aqsa Mosque, most mosques in Jerusalem and Israel, as well as in the Palestinian territories, remain closed according to directives issued by Imams and senior clerics as part of the preventive measures for the spread of the virus.
The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, comprised of Arab mayors and Knesset members, has set up a subcommittee staffed with doctors and public health experts and launched a campaign urging the public to obey the Health Ministry’s instructions.