A video posted on Twitter on 25 April shows police breaking up a gathering of Muslims in a mosque in South Africa, which is still under a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus. A total of 24 people were arrested at the service in Mbuzini marking the first day of Ramadan. The Muslim community is furious at comments made by a police officer during the incident, which they say were both disrespectful and blasphemous.

Muslims around the world are beginning a Ramadan unlike any other: under lockdown. That’s certainly the case in South Africa, where the government has enacted a ban on all gatherings, including those of a religious nature.

On Saturday, April 25, about 20 Muslims from the village of Mbuzini (located in Mpumalanga province to the east of Pretoria) flouted lockdown orders to pray together at the mosque, which is a common practice during Ramadan. But their gathering was cut short.

In a video of the incident, which was filmed by the police themselves and which has been viewed more than 640,000 times on Twitter, one of the officers shouts out, "You think your president is crazy?” and then, “You are all under arrest!”

At the end of the video, a male officer calls out, "Are you greater than the president? Muhammad is greater than the president?” These comments have incensed Muslims on Twitter, many of whom see them as blasphemous and offensive.

Police apologise to the Muslim community

According to online news outlet Sowetan Live, the Council of Muslim Theologians said that while the congregants were wrong to gather, they were outraged by the officers’ conduct. 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.”

On 24 April, 17 people were arrested in western Pretoria during a similar gathering. Police Minister Bheki Cele apologised to the Muslim community on Sunday for blasphemous remarks made during the arrest, according to South African Police spokesperson Mathapelo Peters. He added that police were carrying out an urgent investigation to determine the person “behind such sacrilege”.

The police minister took the opportunity to remind the public to respect lockdown measures to protect their fellow citizens from the spread of Covid-19. He also called on religious leaders to support the government’s efforts.

South Africa has the highest number of reported Covid-19 infections on the African continent, with 4,793 reported cases and 90 deaths.

Article by Hermann Boko