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In many parts of the world, religious gatherings have turned into coronavirus superspreader events, from the Young Israel synagogue in New York to a gathering of evangelical Christians at Mulhouse in France. In those cases, governments jumped in, contained the contaminated area and provided treatment to sick people. But in India, attendees at a conference of an Islamic group allege they are being singled out and prosecuted. Some of them are Americans. NPR's Apoorva Mittal has the story of one of them.
APOORVA MITTAL, BYLINE: Ahmed Ali worked as a pharmacy technician in Buffalo, N.Y. In early March, he arrived in New Delhi with his wife and in-laws.
AHMED ALI: I visit here with my family, a reason to visit Nizamuddin Markaz and, you know, different places of India.
MITTAL: Ali was attending a conference of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic movement with tens of millions of followers worldwide. The pandemic was just taking off in India. On March 25, the government suddenly implemented a national lockdown. Ali and his family were sheltering at a mosque in Delhi.
ALI: One day, the police came and, you know - and then they asked my phone, all my family phone and all the passport. And then they say we bring it back to you on tomorrow. And till now, close to five months, they never returned it.
MITTAL: Ali says he, his wife and mother-in-law all tested positive but never needed treatment. Over the next two months, his family were moved between a school, a hospital and a quarantine facility that Ali describes as hell.
ALI: Just, like, treated us like an animal, you know? You cannot complain anything. You cannot do anything.
MITTAL: Delhi government's top counsel on criminal matters, Rahul Mehra, says that quarantine facilities were run by the government.
RAHUL MEHRA: If there was anything, it would have come out in the open. Nobody commented on it. Nobody came to the court saying the facilities are bad.
MITTAL: Ali and his fellow conference attendees were charged with violating guidelines issued by the Indian government in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and for flouting visa rules. The government says they should have entered the country on missionary and not tourist visas. The charges carry a penalty of five years in prison. Ali's lawyer says that the Tablighi movement is about self-reform and does not proselytize. Ashima Mandla, one of them, says these gatherings have been taking place in India for decades without any issues.
ASHIMA MANDLA: They passed a blanket order saying that you all are preachers without having understood the movement.
MITTAL: Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says there is no denying that the gathering caused an initial spike. Still, he says that the government is scapegoating a minority community for a failed public health response.
SADANAND DHUME: What you have is people being persecuted. I would argue, or at any rate prosecuted for what is a tragedy. So this is a little bit akin to students gathering at a beach in, say, Florida or somewhere and then it turns out that they had been foolish. But you have to remember that at the time of this gathering, the government itself was claiming that everything was under control.
MITTAL: He lays the blame on existing tensions between Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government and India's Muslim community. More than 900 foreign nationals were offered a plea and freed after paying a fine. But more than 40 decided to contest the charges. Ali says the decision to fight the charges was a tough one, given that they have three small children living with family in New York.
ALI: We miss so much about our country and my family. And the other hand, we want to stand for our human rights.
MITTAL: The trial began this week in New Delhi. Apoorva Mittal, NPR News.
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