SRINAGAR, India (AP) — A call to afternoon prayer rang out from the central mosque in disputed Kashmir’s largest city for the first time in more than four months on Wednesday, ending a virtual ban on religious practice in the Muslim-majority region’s biggest mosque.
The Jamia Masjid in Srinagar was shut Aug. 5 as part of India’s security lockdown after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government stripped Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status.
About 100 worshipers gathered in the mosque to offer noon prayers.
“We were waiting for conditions to improve and the mosque gates to be opened by the police,” said Mufti Ghulam Rasool, who leads daily prayers at the mosque.
The centuries-old Jamia Masjid, made of brick and wood, is one of the oldest mosques in this city of 1.2 million, 96% of whom are Muslim, and often draws thousands to prayer.
That it was a target for authorities is neither surprising nor new. Friday sermons at the mosque mainly revolve around the decades-old Kashmir conflict, in which rebels have demanded an independent Kashmir or a merger with Pakistan, which administers half of the territory. In surrounding neighborhoods, stone-throwing protesters often clash with government forces as part of an ongoing anti-India rebellion.
“Jamia Masjid is symbol of our faith," said Bashir Ahmed, a local trader. “The assault on us is not just physical, they’re also desecrating our sacred symbols of our faith.”
“My heart was burning all these months,” Ateeqa, an elderly woman who uses only one name, said as she hugged one of the 378 wooden pillars in the mosque.
The portion of divided Kashmir that India controls was already one of the most militarized places in the world before the government began pouring in more troops last summer. It imposed a security lockdown, blocking internet and phone services, shuttering important mosques, restricting assembly and arresting thousands of people.
While some of the conditions have been eased, some mosques and Muslim shrines either remain shuttered or have had their access limited.
Kashmiri Muslims have long complained that the government curbs their religious freedom on the pretext of law and order while promoting Hinduism.
Authorities have banned prayers at the mosque for extended periods during unrest in 2008, 2010 and 2016. Official data show the mosque was closed at least 250 days in those three years combined.
Freedom of religion is enshrined in India’s constitution, allowing citizens to follow and freely practice religion. The constitution also says the state will not “discriminate, patronize or meddle in the profession of any religion.”
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation raised concerns about India’s lockdown in Kashmir in August and called for authorities to ensure that Kashmiri Muslims could exercise their religious rights.
Authorities have gradually eased restrictions on gatherings at mosques, shrines and religious festivals in Kashmir.