by Anuj Chopra with AFP bureaus
Muslims around the world began marking a sombre Eid al-Fitr Sunday, many under coronavirus lockdown, but lax restrictions offered respite to worshippers in some countries despite fears of skyrocketing infections.
The three-day festival, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, is traditionally celebrated with mosque prayers, family feasts and shopping for new clothes, gifts and sweet treats.
But this year, the celebration is overshadowed by the fast-spreading coronavirus, with many countries tightening lockdown restrictions after a partial easing during Ramadan led to a sharp spike in infections.
Further dampening the festive spirit, many countries — from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Turkey and Syria — have banned mass prayer gatherings to limit the spread of the disease.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, began a five-day round-the-clock curfew from Saturday after infections more than quadrupled since the start of Ramadan to over 72,000 — the highest in the Gulf.
Mecca’s Grand Mosque has been almost devoid of worshippers since March, with a stunning emptiness enveloping the sacred Kaaba — the large cube-shaped structure towards which Muslims around the world pray.
But on Sunday, an imam stood on a podium while Saudi security forces, some wearing masks, positioned themselves between rows of worshippers who gathered before the Kaaba for Eid prayers.
- Scuffles in Jerusalem –
At Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina, prayers were not permitted inside, although the site is expected to reopen after the Eid holiday.
Small scuffles broke out between Israeli security forces and worshippers gathering around the mosque at dawn, although prayers eventually went ahead outside, an AFP photographer said.
In Gaza, Hamas authorities allowed prayers in mosques despite the enclave’s first coronavirus death on Saturday, but worshippers mostly wore masks and placed their prayer mats far apart.
“Eid is not Eid with the atmosphere of coronavirus — people feel a sense of fear,” worshipper Akram Taher said.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire to mark Eid al-Fitr in a surprise move following months of bloody fighting with Afghan forces after the signing of a landmark agreement with the United States.
The streets of Kabul were mostly empty as part of a strict lockdown, but some people did venture out and greet each other — some from a distance and others hugging and shaking hands despite calls for social distancing.
In Somalia, at least five people were killed and more than 20 wounded in a blast during Eid festivities, police said.
The blast occurred as a crowd of people were dancing and singing, a witness said, but the cause of the explosion was unclear.
In Indian-administered Kashmir, another troublespot, Eid celebrations were muted under the coronavirus restrictions and as authorities tightened the screws after a spate of clashes between government forces and rebels.
- Fears of ‘new peak’ –
Ahead of the holiday, Muslims across Asia — from Indonesia to Pakistan, Malaysia and Afghanistan — had thronged markets to shop, flouting coronavirus guidelines and sometimes even police attempts to disperse large crowds.
“For over two months my children were homebound,” said mother of four Ishrat Jahan at a bustling market in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.
“This feast is for the kids, and if they can’t celebrate it with new garments, there is no point in us working so hard throughout the year.”
The holiday began on a sombre note after a Pakistan International Airline flight crashed Friday in the southern city of Karachi, killing 97 people including many who were travelling to see family for the holiday.
The English daily Dawn said the crash, along with the pandemic, had robbed Pakistan of “whatever little joy had been left at the prospect of Eid festivities”.
In Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim nation — people turned to smugglers and fake travel documents to get around bans on the annual end-of-Ramadan travel that could send infections soaring.
In the conservative province of Aceh, large groups prayed together with few masks and little social distancing as Eid began, and the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in the provincial capital was packed.
“I did feel worried but as a Muslim, I still had to perform mass Eid prayers as a form of gratitude to Allah,” one worshipper, Arsi, said.
COVID-19 death tolls across the Middle East and Asia have been lower than in Europe and the United States, but numbers are rising steadily, sparking fears the virus may overwhelm often underfunded healthcare systems.
- Frugal celebrations –
Iran, which has experienced the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak, called on its citizens to avoid travel during Eid as it battles to control the virus.
Health Minister Saeed Namaki said Iran was focusing hard on avoiding “new peaks of the disease” caused by people “not respecting health regulations”.
The United Arab Emirates has tightened its lockdown which had been relaxed during Ramadan, but that did not stop some families from planning getaways to luxury beachfront hotels.
But in many countries, Muslims steeled themselves for frugal celebrations amid growing financial distress, including falling oil prices that plunged the Gulf region into its worst economic crisis in decades.
In the Syrian capital Damascus, Eid shoppers rummaged through flea markets for clothes at bargain prices as the war-ravaged and sanctions-hit country grappled with a much more entrenched economic crisis.
“The flea market is the only place I can buy something new to wear for the Eid holidays,” 28-year-old Sham Alloush said.
“Had it not been for this place, I wouldn’t have been able to buy new clothes at all.” -AFP