BERLIN: Imam Sheikh Abdallah Hajjir (left) takes a coronavirus test before attending Friday prayer at the 'Haus der Weisheit' (House of Wisdom) Mosque in Berlin's Moabit district. - AFP

BERLIN: With his head tilted back and his face mask pulled down, Imam Abdallah Hajjir patiently undergoes a nasal swab outside a Berlin mosque to get tested for the coronavirus. "Negative!" he smiles a few minutes later, and heads inside for Friday prayers. The medical team manning a testing station outside the red-bricked "House of Wisdom" mosque is part of a push by authorities in the German capital to raise COVID awareness among Muslims during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, and among migrant populations more generally. Sitting at a table in the building's parking lot, the staff made up of Libyans, Syrians and Armenians carry out free rapid testing for a steady stream of worshippers lining up with prayer mats rolled up under their arms.

'Protecting society'

Imam Abdallah Hajjir, wearing a gold-rimmed cap, says encouraging the congregation to get tested is a way "to contribute" in the fight against the pandemic. "By protecting the members of our community, we are protecting those they come into contact with, so society as a whole," he said. Around 35 percent of Berlin residents have a migrant background, and neighborhoods with the highest proportion of migrants have recorded the highest number of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began a year ago.

They are often also the areas where population density is above average. Many immigrants live in close quarters in small apartments, or in asylum centers where up to five people sometimes share a single room. Last October, the OECD sounded the alarm and said migrant workers were "on the frontline" of the pandemic in developed countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of some 40 mostly rich nations, estimated that the risk of a coronavirus infection was "at least twice as high" as among the rest of the population.

In Germany as elsewhere, people with foreign backgrounds also tend to be employed in work that can't be done remotely, such as cleaning or caring for the elderly, according to the Dezim institute for research on integration and migration. As Germany's COVID vaccination drive picks up speed, city authorities are stepping up efforts to try to overcome "the large reservations" held by some migrants about getting jabbed, said Katarina Niewiedzial, Berlin's integration officer.

"There's false information circulating" about the vaccines, she said, ranging from "'It's going to make me sterile' to 'they're going to implant a chip'". She said people like the imam "with all the authority they carry" are best placed to "boost people's confidence" in the COVID jabs.

"The impact is completely different when he uses his sermon, like he did today, to stress the need to protect lives," she added. Berlin has also launched coronavirus information podcasts in over a dozen languages, including Arabic, Farsi and Kurdish. The vaccination of 18,500 refugees living in shared accommodation in Berlin has also got under way.

Sidewalk prayers

Outside the mosque in Berlin's diverse Moabit neighborhood, a small group of worshippers have placed their prayer rugs on the asphalt and are listening to the imam's voice carried by loudspeakers from the prayer room. Pandemic restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather inside the building have left them praying on the sidewalk.

The cleansing ritual, or ablution, has to be carried out before arriving at the mosque. But Ali, 30, who comes every Friday, says he won't let the virus curbs ruin the holy month of Ramadan for the second year in a row. "It's a shame we can't have large family gatherings (to break the fast). But luckily we can have video chats with our relatives," he says, smiling. - AFP