Few masks in packed Burkina Faso mosques as coronavirus ban lifted

By Thiam Ndiaga

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Muslims, many praying shoulder-to-shoulder and without face masks, crowded mosques in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou on Sunday, after the government lifted an order closing them.

Authorities ordered mosques to be closed in March as the coronavirus outbreak grew in the West African country, which as of Sunday, had recorded 652 cases and 44 deaths from COVID-19.

But the order faced opposition, particularly during the ongoing holy month of Ramadan and on Saturday about 100 people protested outside the offices of the Federation of Islamic Associations of Burkina (FAIB) to demand its withdrawal.

The FAIB, which acts as an intermediary between the government and Muslims, later said that the government had lifted the order, provided that worshippers wore masks and respected physical distancing and other health restrictions.

But at the Central Mosque of the Sunni Movement of Burkina Faso on Sunday hundreds of worshippers packed into tight spaces to pray, a Reuters reporter said.

"We cannot be in a house of God and impose our own laws," Talla Beye, 40, a jeweller who had come to pray, said.

And few wore masks in Ouagadougou's largest mosque.

"It is God who brought the disease and who will protect us. Mask or not, God is already in control," he added.

Abdoul Moumini Zoundi, the FAIB's permanent secretary, acknowledged many worshippers were not respecting the health guidelines at mosques across Ouagadougou, but said people felt a religious obligation to pray close to others.

"I came with my own prayer mat to avoid praying on the same mat as others," he said.

"As for masks, some wore them, others didn't."

Despite the spread of the coronavirus across West Africa, some governments have moved to lift certain restrictions, including lockdowns and market closures, partly to reduce the damage to some of the world's poorest economies.

The reported rates of infection in the region are far lower than in other parts of the world, but the World Health Organization worries the outbreak will overwhelm fragile health systems and has warned against lifting restrictions too quickly.

(Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Alexander Smith)