Religious believers in Tajikistan streamed back into mosques Monday on the back of a government order opening religious buildings and official claims that there had been no new coronavirus cases in the country for three weeks.
The poorest country in the former Soviet Union has officially recorded just over a dozen new coronavirus cases and no deaths since the start of the year, even if health experts have cast doubt over the statistics and testing is not widespread.
AFP correspondents witnessed hundreds of mask-wearing residents of the capital Dushanbe walk through the ornate wooden doors of the city's main mosque for the first time since it was closed due to the coronavirus last April.
Jahongir Nazarov, a 33-year-old taxi driver, gave thanks to God that the coronavirus "has left the dignified people of Tajikistan".
The first day of February, which was bright and cool under a blue sky, was "one of the best days of our lives," Nazarov told AFP. "Our mosques have reopened."
A student who only gave his first name, Rustam, said that he and his friends planned to make full use of the mosque -- praying there five times a day -- after almost a year of doing so at home.
"I am glad that this disease has retreated," Rustam said.
- Doubts over region's figures -
Tajikistan's population of 9.5 million is over 95 percent Muslim and typically devout but the secular authoritarian regime imposes tight controls on religion.
Long-ruling leader Emomali Rakhmon last month hailed health workers and said citizens could be "confident" of zero active infections.
Nevertheless, he called for vigilance and kept sanitary measures in place.
The Central Asian nation has not enforced a full lockdown since the pandemic started. Restaurants stayed open even as religious buildings were shuttered.
The country's coronavirus count has not changed since early January when it reached 13,308 infections, 90 fatalities and 13,218 recoveries.
As of Tuesday, neighbouring Kyrgyzstan by contrast had 84,588 cases and 1,412 deaths -- but a senior official there admitted last month that real coronavirus-related fatalities could be several times higher.
Tajikistan was late to declare any virus cases last year, announcing 15 infections on April 30 just as a World Health Organization delegation prepared to fly out to the republic to review its pandemic response.
Turkmenistan, another Central Asian country, has also maintained that it is coronavirus-free.
But a British ambassador has said he contracted the disease while in the country and a Turkish diplomat stationed there reportedly died from coronavirus-related complications.