- Maulana Saad, 56, is suspected to have coronavirus, say sources
- Delhi Police are searching Maulana Saad and six other markaz officials
- Close to 400 COVID-19 cases are estimated to be linked to the gathering
While more and more coronavirus cases in the country are being traced to a religious gathering in Delhi of the Islamic missionary sect Tablighi Jamaat, a hunt is on for its leader Maulana Saad Kandhalvi, last seen on March 28.
Close to 400 COVID-19 cases are estimated to be linked to the gathering last month at "Markaz Nizamuddin", the 100-year-old building in a crowded south Delhi locality where the Tablighi Jamaat is based. Officials believe nearly 9,000 of its members, both Indian and foreign, are at risk.
Maulana Saad, 56, may have been exposed to coronavirus, police sources say. The Crime Branch of Delhi Police has sent teams to Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar and is also searching in the capital for him and six more Markaz officials charged by the police. The police also sent notice at his home, which was received by his family. The family reportedly said he would respond through his lawyer.
The police contacted 14 hospitals to try and track down the missing cleric.
Maulana Saad has been charged by the police over allegations that he encouraged people to congregate and stay at Markaz Nizamuddin, trashing all coronavirus-related warnings of social distancing and defying a ban on large gatherings. He allegedly ignored two police notices to vacate the building.
In two audio clips that emerged on Wednesday, he is heard claiming that he is self-isolating in Delhi under a doctor's advice.
In the first audio message, put out on the Markaz YouTube channel, Maulana Saad says "a mosque is the best place to die" and insists that coronavirus can do no harm to his followers.
In the second audio clip, he does a turnaround and appeals to Tablighi members to follow the guidelines of the government and avoid large gatherings. "Undoubtedly, what is happening in the world is the result of humanity's crimes. We should remain at home, that is the only way to calm the wrath of God. One should follow the advice of doctors and cooperate with the administration. Wherever our members are, they should follow the administration's orders," he is heard saying.
"Quarantine yourself, no matter where you are, it is not against Islam or Shariyat," he says.
Maulana Saad, in a sermon on March 23, had called social distancing warnings a conspiracy to keep Muslims away from each other.
"Where will you run from death? Death is in front of you...This is an occasion to seek penance from God. Not an occasion where one comes under the influence of doctors and stops Namaaz, meeting each other...Yes, there is a virus. But 70,000 angels are with me and if they can't save me, who will? This is the time for more such gatherings, not the time to avoid each other...," he says in the sermon, which is being investigated by the police.