Police in Cameroon used force on Friday to disperse Muslims praying at mosques at the start of the holy month of Ramadan, saying they were violating government orders not to gather because of the coronavirus.
Cameroon has confirmed at least 1,300 COVID-19 infections and 43 deaths, making it the West African country hardest hit by the pandemic.
In a statement, police said they used force to disperse Muslims from at least 13 mosques in the country’s West, Center and Far North regions, where people had gathered for prayers during the Ramadan fasting period that began Friday. The government had banned such gatherings in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Awah Fonka, governor of the western region of Cameroon, said he asked police to force out Muslims who didn't heed the order and were praying in mosques in the towns of Foumban, Foumbot and Bafoussam. He spoke via a messaging app from Bafoussam.
He said he will not spare anyone who refuses to respect measures taken by the government of Cameroon to protect its citizens from the deadly coronavirus that is killing people around the world.
Police said that some Muslims were targeting people from Cameroonian towns hardest hit by the coronavirus and that they had received 175 complaints from Cameroonians who were either stigmatized or chased from their villages.
Gaston Asabe, a 34-year old fruit and vegetable seller, was one of them. He said when he arrived in his northern village of Koza on Thursday night, villagers and his relatives chased him, saying that he was a carrier of the coronavirus since he was coming from Yaounde, which has the highest number of COVID-19 infections in Cameroon. He spoke via a messaging app from the northern town of Maroua, where he’d fled for safety.
He said he struggled to explain that he was not contaminated, but no one listened to him.
Imam Dairou Abdoulahi of the 5th Mosque in Koza said Asabe was attacked after the government reiterated that mosques should remain closed during Ramadan. Abdoulahi said Muslims in the village argued that they have not had any cases of COVID-19 and will remain safe attending prayers in their mosques if they keep visitors from towns where the virus has been confirmed from coming to their villages. Abdoulahi, in a phone interview from Koza, said he asked the Muslims to stay home and be safe.
He added that no one should blame the government for asking for the closure of mosques, because it is a decision that will save lives.
Manaouda Malachie, Cameroon minister of health, speaking through a messaging app, called on the population to respect measures taken by the government to stop COVID-19 no matter their religious or traditional beliefs.
He said that believers should know that by staying safe and praying at home, they are not only protecting themselves, but other other faithful from being sickened by the coronavirus. Manaouda said they will be time to celebrate when the virus is conquered.
Cameroon’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on March 5. The government, among other measures, asked Christians and Muslims to pray at home to avoid its spread. The health ministry said that the cases will continue to rise if Cameroonians fail to take COVID-19 seriously.