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Supporters of Iraqi shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr maintain social distancing as they attend Friday prayers for the first time in months

Supporters of Iraqi shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr maintain social distancing as they attend Friday prayers for the first time in months Photograph: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Thousands of supporters of Iraqi shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have gathered at a mosque in east Baghdad for the first weekly prayers since the onset of the pandemic, AFP reports.

Iraq’s mosques have been closed to gatherings for close to six months, but Sadr said on Wednesday he would hold open-air prayers in his stronghold.

In east Baghdad’s Sadr City, worshippers put on medical masks and gloves and had their temperatures taken before being allowed into the courtyard of the main mosque, where volunteers were spraying disinfectant.

“We urge everyone to abide by social distancing and protect themselves against this virus,” the imam said in the opening to his brief sermon.

Sadr had issued a list of restrictions on Twitter this week, including that worshippers must stand exactly 75cm apart and sermons must last only 15 minutes.

One worshipper, Qassem al-Mayahi, 40, said he was “happy to finally be able to pray on Fridays, as this is one of the five pillars of Islam.

We need to figure out how to live” with the virus, “we may as well pray.”

Other prayers at Sadrist mosques were expected in the Shia holy city of Najaf on Friday.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit Iraq hard, with nearly 280,000 confirmed cases and more than 7,800 deaths. In March, Iraqi authorities shut down airports and imposed total lockdowns to halt the virus’s spread. Top Shia authority Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani halted his weekly sermons, and they have yet to resume.

But rules have generally been relaxed, with most airports reopening in July and curfews now only in place overnight.

On Monday, the Iraqi government’s coronavirus crisis cell announced restaurants could seat customers – rather than just providing takeaway services – if they abide by health ministry protocols and that sports events could resume, but in the absence of spectators.

The loosening of restrictions came just a few days after Iraq recorded its highest daily caseload yet, with more than 5,000 new Covid-19 infections recorded on 4 September.

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