CALGARY HERALD Opinion: Alberta mosques are setting a high bar in the COVID fight
In the middle of May, towards the end of Ramadan, the province of Alberta entered Stage 1 of its relaunching strategy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Muslims who, for the first time in many of their lives, were praying at home and avoiding group fast-breaking meals, the reopening brought the opportunity to join a few communal prayers in Islam’s holiest month, however different those prayers might appear due to distancing measures.
Closely following and exceeding the government’s regulations for the distanced gatherings, mosques belonging to the Muslim Association of Canada, in particular, have set the bar for safe, health-conscious worship. First at Rahma Masjid in Edmonton, MAC Islamic Centre Of Cold Lake and now at Al Salam Centre in Calgary, Albertan Muslims are demonstrating the very best practices for keeping worshippers safe while accessing much-needed spiritual and mental health resources — an example being followed in other parts of the country.
The government of Alberta has set a standard for dealing with COVID-19 that is ahead of other provinces in many ways, and none more so than its approach to safely reopening houses of worship. Some might ask why a house of worship such as a mosque might be a top priority for a government relaunching. MAC mosques, such as Rahma and Al-Salam, are crucial centres for socially responsive programming focusing on charity, spiritual and mental health needs, and places of community belonging even in times of physical distancing.
Mosque closures, while absolutely necessary for the preservation of life and safety at the beginning of the pandemic, meant that crucial funding and supportive programming ground to a halt, just as the need for them in the community rose exponentially.
As a result of MAC’s crucial social services and especially due to its well-developed national infrastructure for governance, which affords centralized adaptive responses to shifting community needs, MAC has been at the forefront of consultation with the province for reopenings as the need for total restriction has eased.
With notable participation in several town hall meetings, as well as being directly consulted by the province on numerous occasions, MAC has built on its existing, non-partisan ties with the government to advocate for the best interests of Muslims and all Albertans.
After a month at Stage 1, the province of Alberta has just expanded the limit from 50 people or one-third of regular service attendance to no cap on the number of people who can visit a place of worship, with proper physical distancing. The province has also set a number of guidelines for houses of worship that include but are not limited to using the COVID-19 self-assessment tool for all staff, visitors and congregants prior to attending; promoting COVID-19 prevention activities, procedures and education; and maintaining a single point of entry and a separate point of exit for all worship spaces.
In consultation with Premier Jason Kenney, chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw and the minister of culture and multiculturalism, MAC has extended and expanded these guidelines specifically for mosques. For example, in typical communal prayer in Islam, group prayer takes place shoulder-to-shoulder; however, in the era of COVID-19, worshippers maintain two-metre spacing between them at all times by following markers on the floor and through the mandating that everyone bring their own prayer rugs.
Further, to reduce the chances of airborne contamination, MAC has recommended masks for all participants and recitation of the prayers is mandated for the imam alone, facing away from congregants who are only permitted to repeat the prayers in their hearts, silently.
Lastly, to protect our most vulnerable community members, a registration system has been rolled out at Edmonton’s Rahma Mosque and congregational prayer has been disallowed for individuals with chronic medical conditions. Young children have also not been permitted to attend for worship due to uncertainty about their ability to maintain physical distancing and perform essential hygiene practices.
As the largest Canadian Muslim organization with a national reach rooted in strong local chapters in 14 cities, MAC is in a unique position to standardize exceptional relaunching strategies across the country. The MAC Alberta example should serve as inspiration for other houses of worship and provinces working to reopen safely as we all navigate our new reality together.
Issam Saleh is the director of community engagement for the Muslim Association of Canada. He lives in Edmonton.