As the number of new coronavirus cases in Israel’s Arab sector continues to mushroom, more officials are criticizing the decision to continue to allow public prayer every Friday on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, as it is attended by some 12,000 faithful.

The Muslim Waqf, which is charged with enforcing Israel’s public-health regulations on the site, does make sure that worshippers there wear masks and maintain social distancing. The prayers themselves are held in the open air.

This past Friday, however, the weekly prayer turned into a mass demonstration against France and French President Emmanuel Macron. The protests were part of the backlash throughout most of the Muslim world against the government in Paris coming down on the side of free speech in the controversy surrounding the republication of cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. These cartoons had spurred terrorists to gun down the editorial staff of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015.

Worshippers at the Temple Mount crowded together, against Health Ministry instructions, and police were forced to disperse the gathering. Three people were arrested for allegedly disturbing the peace.

Both the Arab leadership in Israel and the Health Ministry are worried about the spread of coronavirus in that sector.

Outgoing Israeli Coronavirus Project Coordinator Ronni Gamzu announced that “we will devote most of our resources this coming week to the Arab sector. Dozens of coronavirus testing stations will open in Arab communities, and residents will not have to provide a doctor’s referral or any payment. We want everyone in the Arab sector to be tested.”

Ayman Saif, the official who oversees the government’s fight against coronavirus in the Arab sector, confirmed that the wedding season had led to a spike in COVID-19 cases among Israel’s Arab population.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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