Religious authorities across Syria join fight against the coronavirus

Most religious authorities in Syria called on their constituents to abide by the government’s preventive measures aimed at containing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

al-monitor Members of the Syrian civil defense, known as the White Helmets, disinfect a mosque as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Binnish, Idlib province, Syria, March 26, 2020.  Photo by MUHAMMAD HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images.

Apr 3, 2020

ALEPPO — Syrian religious institutions have been actively engaged in supporting official measures and efforts to counter the coronavirus and prevent its catastrophic spread across Syria in areas controlled by the government, the opposition and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

This comes as fear of a greater outbreak of the pandemic in Syria has been heightened in light of new cases and deaths.

On April 2, the Syrian government Ministry of Health announced the isolation of Sayyidah Zainab in the Damascus countryside. The city is home to several Shiite shrines and is frequently visited by Shiite pilgrims from Iran. 

Minister of Health Nizar Wahba Yazji had revealed a day earlier in a post on the ministry’s Facebook page that the concerned authorities were asked to isolate the town of Mneen, also in the Damascus countryside, following the death of a woman from there who became infected with the coronavirus. In another post, Yazji explained that the isolation procedure aims to preserve the health of citizens and was imposed in Mneen given the lack of commitment by the victim’s family to quarantine.

Acting WHO Representative in Syria Nima Saeed Abid warned that coronavirus infections are at the “beginning of the curve rise” in Syria, according to the official Syrian News Agency. 

The International Rescue Committee also warned that “COVID-19 in Syria could lead to one of the most severe outbreaks in the world.”

In the opposition areas in northwest Syria, the Idlib city council has closed all popular markets to curb the spread of the coronavirus. That decision, issued by the council on March 31, entered into force on April 1 and will continue to be implemented until April 15.

On April 1, Minister of Health in the opposition-led government Maram al-Sheikh announced that test results of suspected coronavirus cases in northwestern Syria were negative. On March 31, the epidemiological laboratory in Idlib confirmed that all tests conducted on suspected coronavirus cases were negative.

On April 2, the Syrian government Ministry of Endowments said the suspension of Friday prayers and sermons in Syrian mosques will be extended until April 16.

A day before, the ministry placed a number of its affiliated centers at the disposal of the Damascus Health Ministry to be used as quarantine centers. The Ministry’s Scientific Council of Scholars had issued March 29 a fatwa on the zakat (Islamic charity) obligation during the coronavirus crisis, aimed to mitigate the epidemic’s impact on the poor.

In video footage posted on his Facebook page on March 30, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria, spoke of the epidemic that befell the world. Hassoun attributed the spread of the coronavirus to hatred and arrogance harbored by some nations against others. He lauded the measures taken by the Syrian government in the face of the epidemic.

For its part, the Sheikhdom of the Druze issued precautionary instructions on its official Facebook page on March 21. It called for limiting funeral ceremonies to the family of the deceased. It also urged its members to stop shaking hands and kissing. The sheikhdom further decided to ban visits to religious shrines until further notice and recommended fulfilling religious duties at home. It banned all gatherings and urged citizens to follow the instructions of the Ministry of Health.

Despite the measures and calls aimed to contain the spread of the virus, some refuse to abide by them. 

An official at the Syrian government’s Ministry of Endowments told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity for security reasons that “the Iranian-backed religious institutions that directly manage religious shrines in several Syrian provinces have failed to fully abide by the ministry’s decisions. This is the case in Sayyidah Zainab, frequently visited by Shiites and Iranian-backed militia members. Religious ceremonies are still being held there.”

On March 21, the opposition’s Syrian Islamic Council issued a fatwa on the need to avoid gatherings in markets, protests, celebrations and congregational prayers in mosques, especially in densely populated complexes for displaced people. It urged all religious, social and medical figures to constantly raise people’s awareness of these health instructions. 

For its part, the Maronite Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East announced March 21 the suspension of all public services and prayers. The patriarchate said in its statement that the decision was issued by the Christian churches in Syria and Lebanon based on an agreement between the heads of the churches. The decision included instructions to hold funerals in cemetery churches exclusively without accepting condolences. It banned all meetings and activities and called on its subjects to avoid all types of gatherings.

In a related context, the Office of Religious Affairs of the Kurdish autonomous administration in northeastern Syria also canceled Friday prayers in the administration areas from March 15 until further notice. The office also banned all religious gatherings and social events and suspended all religious lessons in mosques to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Syriac parties in northeastern Syria canceled the celebrations that usually take place on April 1 to mark the Assyrian New Year and called on citizens to keep away from gatherings. The Syriac Union executive board said in a statement on its Facebook page on March 30 that Akitu Day (the Syriac Assyrian New Year) this year comes as the whole world battles the coronavirus, calling on its community members around the world to abide by all instructions issued by official authorities. 

In a statement on its Facebook page on March 29, the Assyrian Democratic Organization also canceled all manifestations and forms of celebration of this holiday in an effort to help contain the coronavirus. 

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