'You think your president is crazy?': Muslims arrested for praying under lockdown

Police have arrested 17 people for contravening the lockdown regulations after they were found at a prayer facility in Pretoria West.
Police have arrested 17 people for contravening the lockdown regulations after they were found at a prayer facility in Pretoria West.
Image: Twitter/@Abramjee

Minister Bheki Cele warned on Sunday that police had “no choice but to enforce the law” if the lockdown regulations were flouted for religious gatherings.

He was speaking after the arrest of congregants during Muslim prayer gatherings.

Since the start of the long weekend, police have arrested 41 congregants at two separate religious gatherings in Pretoria and Mpumalanga, national police spokesperson Brig  Vishnu Naidoo said on Sunday.

One of the incidents, in Mpumalanga on Saturday, was captured on video and has since gone viral on social media.

The clip showed police walking into what appeared to be a mosque where shoes had been left outside.

“What’s going on here,” one officer asked?” All of you down,” another officer ordered.

“You think your president is crazy, nê,” says one of the police officers.

One person lifts up his hands, wanting to reply but is quickly reprimanded and told to keep quiet. He said he lived on the premises.

“You are all under arrest,” the officers shout.

A child was among those gathered to pray.

“Are you bigger than the president? Or is Muhammad bigger than the president,” ask officers.

The Council of Muslim Theologians — the Jamiatul Ulama South Africa — said even though the congregants were wrong to gather, they were appalled by the conduct of the police whom they said should be investigated by the SA Human Rights Commission.

Cele said the incident was preceded by another video that went viral, depicting a man encouraging “all Muslims ... to engage in worship in congregation”.

This as the Muslim community marks the holy month of Ramadan by fasting.

Cele said in the video, the man offered free legal services to anyone who might get arrested for contravening the law. Police were investigating the matter.

Cele condemned the incident and urged religious leaders to work with the police in discouraging religious gatherings in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“When people, wittingly or unwittingly, violate the lockdown regulations, police are left with no choice but to enforce the law where in some instances this means arresting people,” said Cele.

“This global pandemic demands that we all make huge sacrifices, making drastic adjustments to the way we live under normal circumstances. So, the sooner we accept that these are abnormal times, the closer we can all get to possible solutions towards eradicating the coronavirus once and for all,” he said.

The Council of Muslim Theologians said in a statement that “apart from the verbal abuse which is demeaning of the name of the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him], the SAPS officers are also seen entering the prayer room in their heavy boots.

“Such images are distressing to Muslims who consider prayer places as sacred and entered upon only without shoes.”

The council felt the police had been heavy-handed in their approach but accepted their  right to enforce the law which did not allow religious gatherings.

“The law is clear that offenders remain suspects, entitled to their dignity, until due process formally establishes their guilt. As such, to abuse a symbol of the faith of an entire community, on the basis of a violation of the law of few adherents, becomes an assault on freedom of belief and conscience, let alone an abuse of authority and powers.”

The council called on the SA Human Rights Commission and Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) to investigate the conduct of the police. 

Note: This article has been updated to clarify that the incident captured on video happened in Mpumalanga and not Pretoria, as initially reported. Police confirmed on Sunday there had been two incidents, one in Mpumalanga and another in Pretoria, where congregants were arrested. We apologise for the error.