LAHORE: Police on Saturday arrested four clerics and booked 15 others in Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan for violating lockdown rules and holding Friday congregations despite a fatwa issued by a top global Islamic body to suspend them to contain the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.
Four clerics were arrested in Punjab province, while 15 clerics were booked in Sindh province's Karachi city, police said as the coronavirus cases in Pakistan on Saturday reached 1,408, including 11 deaths.
The government had issued a notification limiting the number of people between three to five who can attend Friday and congregational prayers in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The Grand Imam Shaikh of Egypt's Jamia Al Azhar, an authority on Islamic injunctions, and the Supreme Council in Egypt, on the request of Pakistan President Arif Alvi, on Wednesday empowered the head of the state to suspend Friday prayers in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The fatwa (religious edict) stated that public gatherings, including congregational prayers at mosques, could result in spread of coronavirus and the governments of Muslim countries had full jurisdiction to cancel such events.
However, religious leaders of the Barelvi and Deobandi sects did not support the decree issued by Al-Azhar.
A number of mosques flouted the order and a large number of people offered Friday congregations in Punjab and other parts of the country.
In Islamabad, Friday prayers were held at the Faisal Mosque where nearly 40 people offered prayers by maintaining some distance.
There were also reports of people attending Friday prayers in Sindh and Balochistan provinces despite presence of police personnel to discourage people from attending it.
Those arrested are Allama Muhammad Abbas Rizvi, Qari Muhammad Sabir, Qari Muhammad Mazhar and Qari Muhammad Usman.
Sindh Inspector General of Police Mushtaq Ahmed Mahar said police could have used force against the people for violating the lockdown but wanted them to realise that even Saudi Arabia has stopped congregations at Ka'aba, Islam's holiest site, and Masjid-e-Nabvi and it is also considering cancelling the Haj this year.
Meanwhile, in separate incidents, the Punjab and Sindh governments have arrested 210 people for hoarding of masks, sanitizers and gloves.
In Punjab, a container carrying 40 passengers from Karachi was intercepted by police in Multan, some 350 kms from Lahore, on Friday.
The police shifted them to police station for screening to make sure that they were not infected with the deadly virus.
They were later allowed to go home after a warning.
Punjab is emerging as the new epicentre of the deadly viral infection in the country. The province recorded a total of 490 COVID-19 cases on Saturday, up from 419 cases on Friday.
The number surpassed Sindh's tally of 457 cases. Sindh was the province, which reported Pakistan's first coronavirus case.