Palestinian coronavirus patients attended religious gathering in Pakistan last month

Pakistani authorities had urged to cancel the five-day congregation but organisers ignored the government's advice

Islamic worshippers board a truck before their departure from the annual Tablighi Ijtema religious gathering in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan, March 13, 2020. AFP/Arif Ali

GAZA CITY: Gaza's first two confirmed coronavirus patients attended a conference alongside 250,000 Muslims in Pakistan last month that went ahead contrary to government advice, an official and family members said Monday.

The Pakistani authorities had urged for the cancellation of the five-day Tablighi Ijtema congregation hosted annually near Lahore but organisers from the movement ignored government advice to postpone.

The movement was founded by religious scholars more than five decades ago and focuses exclusively on preaching Islam. At the time, Ehsanullah — one of the event's organisers who goes by one name — had told AFP that although most had gone home, "still tens of thousands of people are here" and others would return.

"Our elders and organisers decided that the gathering will proceed as planned," Ehsanullah had said. Shortly thereafter, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had said: "Thank God, the coronavirus pandemic is under control in Pakistan."

It was unclear where the two Palestinians — who returned to Gaza from Pakistan via Egypt earlier this month — contracted COVID-19.

But a statement from the Palestinian embassy in Islamabad said the two attended the event, which took place "despite the warning of the Pakistani authorities against conferences".

Omar al-Tabatibi said his 79-year-old grandfather, Mohammed, and friend Amer Doghmosh had attended the Lahore event.

Previous statements from health officials had misidentified the men as being between 30 and 40. "My grandfather learnt about the conference by chance from a friend while he was in Pakistan so he wanted to attend," Tabatibi said.

After returning from Pakistan, his grandfather stayed several days in Egypt before taking the long journey overland to Gaza, Tabatibi said. "Maybe, my grandfather caught corona in Egypt and not Pakistan, no one knows," he added.

He said the family had already been subjected to abuse on social media and in person since the news broke.

"My little brother went to a games shop today and the owner told him to go home as his grandfather has corona [virus]."

Gaza's health ministry said the two men were placed in quarantine immediately after crossing into Gaza and did not mix with the population. It described them as being in stable condition.

Omar said his grandfather has pre-existing conditions of high blood pressure and diabetes. "I spoke to him last night on the phone and he told me he was okay and is recovering," he said.

The United Nations has warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza could be disastrous, given the high poverty rates and weak health system in the coastal strip under Israeli blockade since 2007.