The decision to give special permission for 400 worshippers to gather at a mosque to celebrate Eid despite COVID-19 restrictions has been slammed by local officials, who claim they were not even told about the exemption.
Social distancing restrictions in New South Wales prevent more than 100 people from gathering in places of worship.
But NSW Health gave permission for four times that number to attend the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque in western Sydney on Friday for Eid al-Adha prayers – a major religious event in the Islamic calendar.
Worshippers had to wear masks, but Cumberland City Council Mayor Steve Christou said he was ‘absolutely livid’ the state government would risk the health of residents during a pandemic.
‘This kind of behaviour from the state is inexcusable and I am absolutely livid that they would potentially jeopardise the health and wellbeing of our residents and the health of greater Sydney residents,’ he told The Daily Telegraph.
‘We either have a pandemic, which we acknowledge and adhere to the relevant health directives for one and all, or we don’t.’
Attendees had to sign in and were split into four zones, which included two levels of the mosque, a function hall and the car park.
Up to 100 people were allowed inside at any one time, with up to 400 people allowed on the premises – far less than the several thousand who usually attend.
Worshippers also wore stickers to designate the zone to which they were assigned.
Mayor Christou – who claimed he only found out about the decision through the media – said though he would have opposed the exemption if he had known about it.
‘I don’t understand how NSW Health can pick and choose who is at risk and who warrants an exemption,’ he said.
NSW Health said in a statement the mosque developed a ‘comprehensive safety plan’ and the government body were on site on the day to ensure the agreed procedures were being followed.
The mosque’s one-off exemption comes after two cases of coronavirus were linked to a church and four more were tied to a funeral service in Sydney.
Coronavirus cases have also been confirmed in the same area of western Sydney as the mosque, with Merrylands’ Advanced Early Learning Centre being forced to close last weekend when two workers there tested positive for COVID-19.
The mosque’s president Abdurrahman Asaroglu had said previously the venue had implemented appropriate measures to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak.
‘Our community is really understanding and they are OK to follow these measures — no shaking hands, no hugging — making sure that they just pray,’ Dr Asaroglu told ABC.
‘If everyone does the right thing I don’t think there will be any issues.’
In 2019, nearly 3,000 worshippers attended Eid al-Adha prayers at the mosque and thousands more spilled onto the streets nearby.
Dr Asargolu said the large attendance last year could not be replicated in 2020.
He said if more than 400 people arrive at the mosque, they would be turned away.
‘If anybody is not abiding by the regulations, we have security to make sure that they are excluded,’ he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had said he was concerned with large gatherings at places of worship.
Mr Morrison, who is a devout Christian, said he and wife Jenny had not been to church in months.
‘I know faith is very important to people, but even at times like this, it’s even more important that we don’t gather in those large groups,’ he told 2GB radio on Friday.
‘As important as faith is, that we really do think of the health issues here.
‘I just want to encourage everyone to make positive decisions when it comes to how they choose to celebrate their faith over this important time for that (Islamic) community.’