Sikh groups clash with UK government over opening Gurdwaras, as Mandirs and Mosques stick to guidance

24th June 2020   •   article

by Barfi Culture Team | Twitter: @barfi_culture.
Credit: Sikh Council
The UK government and some Sikh groups are rowing about guidelines over opening up Gurdwaras after lockdown, even as Mandirs and Mosques have largely accepted the guidelines without any controversy.

From last week, places of worship were allowed to open for individual worship as long as services are limited and social distancing is maintained.

They were already allowed to open for funerals and 'voluntary essential services' such as providing food.

But last week the Sikh Federation UK issued a press release, "dismissing" the guidance, calling it "offensive".

"It is criminal to allow government to issue guidance to Gurdwaras that is offensive, interferes with Sikh religious practices and contains fundamental errors," it said.

Most controversially, the Sikh Federation also indicated it disagreed with guidelines that people over the age of 70 should remain more careful when visiting places of worship.

The Sikh Federation UK said in response: "The guidance suggests the exception is those over 70 need to visit the Gurdwara on set days or times when Gurdwaras will be open solely to those over 70. Those over 70 attend Gurdwaras in large numbers and what is suggested in the guidance about set days or times is not practical. Those over 70 are usually accompanied by younger members of the family who would also need to be at the Gurdwara."

Barfi Culture contacted representatives from other faiths in Britain to ask if they were allowing vulnerable people over the age of 70 to attend places of worship.

The Muslim Council of Britain pointed us to their guidance document, which says people over the age of 70 are "strongly advised to stay at home".

A representative from Shree Sanatan Hindu Mandir in Leicester, one of the biggest and oldest in the country, told Barfi Culture they were also advising elders to stay at home for the time. British Hindu groups have not said any different.

Health experts say the communal nature of places of worship make them particularly vulnerable to the spread of Coronavirus. This has made the government reluctant to open places of worship too quickly.

Moreover, higher levels of death rates from COVID-19 among Britain's minority communities has made the issue even fraught.

Not all Sikhs agree with the Sikh Federation UK stance.

"The over 70's, especially those from BAME communities, are clearly a higher risk group when it comes to Covid-19. Any advice which flies in the face of both common sense and recommendations from healthcare professionals should be treated as absurd," said Lord Singh, Director of Network of Sikh Organisations, told Barfi Culture.

"We will follow the guidelines as we don’t want to put someone in danger," said Satvinder Singh Dadiahla, joint general secretary of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Hounslow, in a statement.

In a recent interview with Barfi Culture, the managing trustee of Shepherd's Bush Gurdwara said they would abide by health guidelines on opening up.

Leadership clash

But the Sikh Federation's disagreement with the UK government doesn't end there.

It is also calling for Gurmail Singh Malhi, President of Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall Gurdwara, to step down from his role as leading the National Gurdwara Advisory Group. The NGAG works with the government to develop guidelines on opening up places of worship.

They say Mr Malhi should be replaced by someone, in their words, "proficient in English and more able to challenge and engage with government and officials".

A well-placed government source, also involved in the discussions, told Barfi Culture that the call to remove Mr Malhi came as a surprise given that certain Labour MPs had pushed for him to be included in the discussions.

Mr Malhi had earlier hosted a discussion on Zoom with Gurdwara representatives around the country on how they should plan to open up.

What does the law say?

Currently the law states that places of worship can only be open for private, individual prayer. That has a bigger impact on Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Catholics than Christian Anglican services.

For the time being, worship cannot be led by a person or a group from the front. Not until the 4th of July.

This week the UK government is expected to say more on whether scientists are comfortable with opening up places of worship even further. It will depend on the rate of infection.

If any place of worship is found breaking those rules, local police authorities can take action.
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