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April 25, 2020

Ramazan begins amid virus pandemic: Mosques across globe stand empty

Top Story

April 25, 2020

Ramazan begins amid virus pandemic: Mosques across globe stand empty

RIYADH/JERUSALEM: The holy month of Ramazan began on Friday with Islam’s holiest sites in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem largely empty of worshippers as the coronavirus crisis forced authorities to impose unprecedented restrictions, a British wire service reported.

In a rare occurrence in Islam’s 1,400-year history, Makkah’s Grand Mosque and the Masjid-e-Nabwi (SAW) in Medina - the religion’s two holiest locations - will be closed to the public during the fasting period.

Prayers from inside the mosque at Makkah on the first evening of Ramazan on Thursday were restricted to clerics, security staff and cleaners, in a ceremony broadcast live on television.

The masks and gloves were used in Khana Ka’aba and Masjid-e-Nabwi while offering Jumma prayers.A stunning emptiness enveloped the sacred Ka’aba in the most potent sign of how the daytime fasting month will be a sombre affair across Islamic nations.

In comments marking the start of Ramazan, King Salman, who is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, lamented the need for social distancing during the holy month.

“It pains me to welcome the glorious month of Ramazan under circumstances that forbid us from prayers in mosques,” he said, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

“It doesn’t feel special this year, we don’t feel any Ramazan vibes,” said Sarah, a mother-of-two in Riyadh. At a near-empty Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, an imam called out the first Friday prayers of Ramazan across a windswept plateau almost devoid of worshippers.

A handful of clerics in face masks knelt below the pulpit, keeping several feet apart to comply with coronavirus restrictions. “We ask God to have mercy on us and all of humanity and to save us from this lethal pandemic,” the imam said.

Ramazan typically draws tens of thousands of Muslims daily to the mosque and the adjoining Dome of the Rock. Worshippers will instead have to watch prayers on television.

Ramazan is typically a period of both worship and socialising, but this year strict lockdowns limit socialising during iftar meals at dusk when the fast is broken -- a centrepiece of Ramazan.

The measures have put a damper on spirits in Indonesia, the world´s biggest Muslim majority nation, where national religious organisations have called on the faithful to stay at home.

"This Ramazan is very different -- it´s just not festive," said Indonesian housewife Fitria Famela.

"I´m disappointed that I can´t go to the mosque, but what can we do? The world is different now." Similar sentiments echoed across the Middle East and North Africa, where multiple towns and cities are under round-the-clock curfew.

Countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria have partially eased the lockdown but Morocco has announced a night-time curfew for Ramazan as it steps up emergency measures to combat the virus.

The North African nation´s Council of Ulema, the official religious body, called for confinement to be respected during Ramazan, saying Islamic sharia law put saving lives above all else -- even meeting for prayers.

However, some religious leaders in Asia -- home to nearly a billion of the world´s Muslims -- have shrugged off fears about the spread of COVID-19.

In Bangladesh, Hefazat-e-Islam group criticised government moves to restrict access to more than 300,000 nationwide mosques. "Quotas on prayer attendance are against Islam," Mojibur Rahman Hamidi, a Hefazat official, said.

"A healthy Muslim must join prayers in a mosque. We hope that, if we pray hard, Allah will save us from the coronavirus," he added. The top Islamic organisation in Indonesia’s Aceh province also publicly bucked a national order to stay at home.

Several thousand worshippers attended evening prayers Thursday at the biggest mosque in the region´s capital Banda Aceh, though crowds were smaller than usual.

The threat of large religious gatherings has been highlighted in recent weeks by waves of infections in Asia linked to separate, massive Islamic congregations in Malaysia, Pakistan and India.

The COVID-19 death tolls across the Middle East and Asia have been lower than in Europe and the United States but are rising steadily, sparking fears the virus may overwhelm often underfunded healthcare systems.

To limit exposure, the World Health Organisation has urged countries to "stop large numbers of people gathering" in places associated with Ramazan activities, such as entertainment venues, markets and shops.

Mohamad Shukri Mohamad, the top Islamic cleric in the 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 to the mosque," he said. "But we must accept it and obey the rules of social distancing to protect our lives."

This year many Muslims are saving their money for masks, gloves and other COVID-19 protective gear. In Lebanon, the threat of the virus and a severe economic crisis have put a damper on Ramazan festivities, with the streets in the capital Beirut largely empty.

Muslim-majority Malaysia has extended a strict lockdown until mid-May with mosques, schools and most businesses closed -- and police checkpoints set up to catch rule breakers. Even popular Ramazan bazaars, where Muslims buy local delicacies before breaking their fast, have been banned.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan Jumma prayers was offered by implementing the standard operating procedures (SOPs) devised unanimously by the government and Ulema.

Administrations of the mosques marked distances for followers in the courtyards of the mosques besides special arrangements for the followers.

Ulema in their sermons, urged the citizens to follow instructions by the government and health departments to save them from coronavirus. The citizens have been directed to make ablution (wuzu) and offer sunnah prayers at homes.

The mosques administrations arranged sanitizers for citizens and washed courtyards with disinfectants. However, in most of the areas, the government imposed restrictions were not followed.

Our Karachi correspondent adds: A mixed response to the government’s 20-point SOP regarding Friday and Taraveeh congregational prayers was observed across the city.

In some places, worshippers followed the SOP while in others they displayed carelessness. In some mosques, carpets and rugs were removed and the worshippers offered prayers by maintaining a proper distance, which was the main point of the SOP that the federal government and religious scholars had agreed on.

In some mosques, soap was also provided to the worshippers to wash their hands during ablution, and only a limited number of people were allowed to pray. The SOP was also enforced outside the mosques and worshippers were requested to follow it. A large number of people also offered Friday prayers at their homes.

For Taraveeh, people in some places acted upon the SOP, but at other places they showed complete disregard for it and ignored social distancing and other precautionary measures.