Muslims worldwide yesterday began marking Ramadan under lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with unprecedented bans on family gatherings and mass prayers, while a pushback in some countries has sparked fears of a surge in infections.
This year, the holy daytime fasting month is to be a somber affair for many across Asia, the Middle East and north Africa.
Widespread rules have been imposed banning praying in mosques or meeting relatives and friends for large iftar meals at dusk — a centerpiece of the month-long fast.
The restrictions have put a damper on spirits in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, where national religious organizations have called on the faithful to stay at home.
“This Ramadan is very different — it’s just not festive,” Indonesian housewife Fitria Famela said. “I’m disappointed that I can’t go to the mosque, but what can we do? The world is different now.”
However, some religious leaders in Asia — home to nearly 1 billion of the world’s Muslims — have waved off fears about the spread of COVID-19.
The top Muslim organization in Indonesia’s conservative Aceh Province publicly bucked a national order to stay at home.
Several thousand worshipers on Thursday attended evening prayers at the biggest mosque in the region’s capital, Banda Aceh — although crowds were smaller than usual.
“I’m not worried, because I’m wearing a mask and keeping my distance,” participant Cut Fitrah Riskiah said.
The threat of large religious gatherings has been highlighted in the past few weeks by waves of infections in Asia, linked to separate, massive Muslim congregations in Malaysia, Pakistan and India.
The WHO has also called for a stop to some Ramadan activities to limit exposure.
However, in Bangladesh, clerics have pushed back at attempts to reduce the number of people going to mosques, while Pakistan has seen its mosques crammed in the lead-up to Ramadan, with the faithful sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and paying little heed to social distancing.
Mohamad Shukri Mohamad, the top Muslim cleric in the conservative Malaysian state of Kelantan, planned to skip public prayers and family meals — even if it meant not seeing his six children and 18 grandchildren.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve been unable to go the mosque,” he told reporters. “But we must accept it and obey the rules of social distancing to protect our lives.”
Muslim-majority Malaysia has extended its strict lockdown until the middle of next month, leaving mosques, schools and most businesses closed — with police checkpoints set up to catch rule-breakers.
Even popular Ramadan bazaars, where Muslims buy local delicacies before breaking their fast, have been banned. Instead, Malaysians can only order from so-called “e-bazaars,” where people order goods online and have them delivered to their homes.
In neighboring Indonesia, concerns about a spike in cases when millions travel to their hometowns and ancestral villages at the end of Ramadan has forced the country of about 260 million to issue a ban on the annual migration.
The government has also announced a clampdown on all air and sea travel across the 17,000-island archipelago.
Jakarta resident Erik Febrian said that he was relying on a computer to allow him to keep in touch with his out-of-town parents until he can see them in person at the end of Ramadan.
“Thanks to technology I can video-call my parents every day during Ramadan, and keep an eye on their health,” he said.
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