Safe Re-opening of mosques: Legal Obligations
Khaled Moyeed, Solicitor
Trustees’ legal obligations
Mosques are charities regulated by the Charity Commission. They have trustees or committee members. It is their legal duty to ensure that musallis/worshippers who attend the mosque for congregational prayer are protected and that any risks of contracting Covid-19 are minimised. As long as trustees/committee members have taken steps to minimise this risk, they will have discharged their legal obligation.
Discharging the trustees’ legal duty is a two-way street i.e. it is important for musallis/worshippers to comply with the guidelines set out by the trustees/committee members. As Muslims, we believe that mosques are houses of Allah of which all members of the congregation are custodians. If there is a widespread lack of compliance, trustees/committee members will be justified in closing the mosque until it is safe for them to re-open. Most mosques are unincorporated associations which means that trustees/committee members will have personal responsibility in the event that something goes wrong.
It is open for trustees/committee members to take a slightly divergent view from the guidelines set out by the government if they want to err on the side of caution. By way of example, the government guidelines do not require worshippers to wear a mask in a place of place of worship and people aged 70 or above are deemed to be at an increased risk. Trustees/committee members may require that everyone must wear a mask/face covering inside the mosque and may restrict musallis who are over the age of 60, for example, because Muslims and BAME communities are at a significantly higher risk from Covid-19 compared to the general population. The trustees/committee members should communicate this to their congregation and expect musallis/worshippers to comply with the requirements. It is ultimately their legal duty to keep everyone safe.
Below are practical guidelines on what action needs to be taken to ensure that mosques can be safely re-opened on 4 July 2020, which is the earliest date that places of worship can be re-opened for congregational prayer.
1. Seek legal, medical and Islamic advice about what safety measures you will be taking and make this information available to your congregation. Organise a Zoom webinar, produce short videos, post messages on your congregation’s WhatsApp group (create one if you do not have one!) and social media platforms and make phone calls to your musallis. Interpret the information into languages that are spoken in your congregation.
2. Appoint a Covid-19 Safety Officer who could be an employee, trustee or a committee member. They must be fully versed with government guidelines and the safety measures that the mosque will put in place. Recruit volunteer stewards or ushers from your own congregation. Train them up on your safety policies and prepare a rota of when they will help with which congregational prayer. They will report to the Covid-19 Safety Officer.
3. Carry out a written risk assessment of your premises. All of the actions set out in the Risk Assessment must be completed at least seven days prior to the re-opening of your mosque. If that is not possible, you should not re-open on 4 July 2020. You can choose a later date when you are ready to re-open safely. The risk assessment, safety measures and any decision about re-opening should be minuted by trustees in their meetings as evidence of discharging your legal duty.
4. Once your risk assessment is done, it is recommended that you contact your insurance company regarding liabilities and coverage.
5. Organise a deep-clean or your mosque premises including its entrance(s), hallways, lifts, staircases, shoe storage areas, ablution and toilet areas, prayer areas, classrooms, offices, halls, kitchen, car parks etc. Pay particular attention to high “touch areas”.
6. Calculate the maximum safe capacity of your mosque while maintaining the two-metre social distancing rule. Mark out prayer spaces where musallis will place their prayer mat using a masking tape. Keep a row empty in between to ensure a two-metre gap in all directions. When social distancing rule changes to one metre, trustees/committee members may continue with two-metres for a little longer to err on the side of caution.
7. You may only allow musallis/worshippers on a first come first served basis. This means you will have to close the door of the mosque if you have reached your maximum safe capacity. Where possible, you may want to operate a pre-booking system.
8. Restrict attendance to (i) those above 60 or 70 as your mosque committee decides, (ii) children under 10 or whatever age you decide because they do not understand social distancing, (iii) those with Covid-19 symptoms, (iv) those who are shielding or living with someone who is shielding or over 60/70 and (v) those who work on the frontline and are exposed to Covid-19 patients.
9. In the initial phase, consider opening the mosque only for fardh/obligatory prayer meaning that sunnah/optional prayers must be prayed at home. Masjid Ayesha Tottenham, for example will only open for 10 minutes before each congregation. Doors will be closed while congregation is taking place. And musallis will be required to leave as soon as the congregational prayer finishes.
10. Toilet and ablution facilities, kitchen and other non-essential spaces should be closed and sealed off. There will need to be one toilet available for emergency use, but not for ablution purposes.
11. Musallis should be required to bring their own prayer mat (preferably disposable), mask and a carrier bag to carry their shoes. Shoe racks should be sealed off in the initial phase when mosques re-open. Masks and disposable prayer mats should be made available at the front door for anyone who forgets to bring them. Carrier bags and hand sanitisers should also be provided.
12. All book shelves should be sealed off. People should bring their own copy of the Qur’an to read or use a Qur’an app on their phone.
13. Trustees/committee members should consider using signage i.e. one-way arrows, closed wudhu area etc. These can be ordered online from various companies.
14. Keep khutbahs, prayers short. And remind musallis/congregants not to handshake or socialise between prayers.
15. Fundraising should preferably be done online and using contactless devices. Cash donations can be collected if there is a box in a designated place. It is better not to pass a bucket around with somebody as that would breach social distancing rules.
About the Author: Khaled Moyeed is a solicitor specialising in charity law and dispute resolution. He is a committee member of Masjid Ayesha Tottenham. He is also a member of Muslim Lawyers’ Action Group and an adviser to the Muslim Council of Britain. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.