Muslims open Ramadhan with social distanced prayers, vaccines

JAKARTA, INDONESIA (AP) — Muslims began marking Ramadhan with congregational prayers yesterday in a socially distanced contrast to the empty mosques of a year ago when Islam’s holiest month coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 cases are spiking in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, but vaccines are being administered and the government is loosening restrictions.

Mosques were allowed to open for Ramadhan prayers with strict health protocols in place, and with malls and cafes open, passers-by could again see curtains shielding the sight of food from people fasting.

Neighbouring Muslim-majority Malaysia also eased its restrictions, including last year’s ban on Tarawikh nighttime prayers and allowing popular open-air bazaars selling food, drinks and clothes to open.

Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas announced in a televised address on Monday evening that the new Ramadhan moon had been spotted. The holy month is marked by intense prayer, dawn-to-dusk fasting and nightly feasts.

Last year, authorities shuttered all mosques and clerics issued a fatwa, or edict, urging Muslims to pray at home over the holy month rather than congregate in crowded spaces and risk spreading the virus.

Indonesian Muslims pray spaced apart as they practice social distancing to curb the spread of the new coronavirus during Sunnat Tarawikh prayers marking the first eve of the holy fasting month of Ramadhan at Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia. PHOTOS: AP
A Palestinian man holds a ladder for another man stringing coloured lights on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan in the Old City of Jerusalem; and constructed domes ensure social distancing to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, at a restaurant in Istanbul

Muslims this year are expecting a virus resurgence but all mosques will be continuing to adhere to social distancing and other precautions, which will significantly reduce crowds, said Nasaruddin Umar, Imam of Jakarta’s Istiqlal grand mosque.

“I miss everything of Ramadhan already,” Umar said, “The heart of faithful Muslims is tied to the mosque… the longing for Ramadhan lovers has finally been relieved today although the pandemic has not yet ended.”

In the capital, Jakarta, authorities disinfected 317 mosques on Sunday in preparation for Ramadhan, said Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan. Social distancing markers have been installed and soap and hand sanitisers have been prepared.

The government also will allow people to hold iftar gatherings during Ramadhan in restaurants, malls and cafes, which can serve customers up to 50 per cent of their capacity and follow strict health guidelines.

Iftar occurs at sunset, the time Muslims break their fast and usually the prime time for people to have dinner together with friends and family members before the night prayer.

“Easing restrictions is like a breath of fresh air for us who are tired by this COVID-19 outbreak,” said Anna Mardyastuti, a resident in Jakarta.

“Yes, they should act to stop the virus, but not block the door to worship or to change our tradition of Ramadhan entirely,” she said.

In Malaysia, Wan Noradriana Balqis, 21, welcomed the return of community prayers in mosques but said she will avoid Ramadhan bazaars that are often packed with people.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to re-open the bazaars. The rules are there but many people don’t follow them,” the database administrative officer said.

Malaysia’s coronavirus cases have more than tripled since January to more than 362,000, with daily increases exceeding 1,000. Indonesia is the worst-hit country in Southeast Asia with over 1.5 million infections as of Monday and more than 42,600 deaths.

Indonesia will maintain its vaccine rollout through Ramadhan as officials tried to ease worries over the Islamic teaching that Muslims should refrain “from anything entering the body” between sunrise and sunset.

Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body said Muslims eligible for vaccinations are not only allowed but “required” to get them during Ramadhan.

Although Muslims abstain from all food and drink in daylight hours during Ramadhan, the vaccine enters muscle rather than the bloodstream and is not nutrition, so it does not invalidate fasting, said Head of fatwas for the Indonesian Ulema Council Asrorun Niam Sholeh.

“If we carry on taking our vaccines, we can ensure that next Ramadhan we do return to some normality,” Sholeh said.

Some vaccine sites in Jakarta are extending their opening hours so Muslims can come after they have broken their fast.

Indonesia plans to vaccinate two-thirds of its population of about 270 million people — or just over 180 million people by the end of next year. The current priorities are healthcare workers, elderly and other at-risk populations, and the two-dose vaccine will be free for all Indonesians.

In India, which is experiencing an explosive spread of the virus, Muslim scholars are appealing to their communities to strictly follow anti-virus protocols and refrain from organising large gatherings. Ramadhan prayers begin yesterday night and fasting begins today in the country with 200 million Muslims.

Many Indian cities dealing with major virus surges have imposed night curfews, and it remains unclear whether the faithful will be allowed to offer Tarawikh, the long post-Iftar congregational prayers in mosques that sometimes stretch late into the night.

Muslims in Indian-controlled Kashmir are still suffering from the two back-to-back lockdowns that left tens of thousands without any means to earn their livelihoods.

The disputed region was under an unprecedented military lockdown in 2019 for months before the months-long coronavirus lockdown last year.

Local charities, like last year, have planned to distribute Ramadhan ration kits for needy and destitute families.