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 offer 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, a festival highlight, 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 70,000 — 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, stood between rows of worshippers gathering before the Kaaba to perform Eid prayers — their prayer mats placed in well-spaced arcs.
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.
At dawn, small scuffles broke out between Israeli security forces and worshippers gathering around the mosque, 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 corona — people feel a sense of fear,” worshipper Akram Taher told AFP.
– Fears of ‘new peak’ -Muslims across Asia — from Indonesia to Pakistan, Malaysia and Afghanistan — have thronged markets for festival shopping, flouting coronavirus guidelines and sometimes even police attempts to disperse large crowds.
“For over two months my children were homebound,” said Ishrat Jahan, a mother of four, 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.”
But the holiday began on a sombre note after a Pakistan International Airline flight crashed in the southern city of Karachi on Friday, 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 the country of “whatever little joy had been left at the prospect of Eid festivities.”
In Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim nation — people have 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, 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, told AFP.
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.
Iran, which has experienced the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak, has called on its citizens to avoid travel during Eid as it battles to control infection rates.
Health Minister Saeed Namaki said the country was focusing hard on avoiding “new peaks of the disease” caused by people “not respecting health regulations”.
– ‘Comedy night’ -The United Arab Emirates has tightened its lockdown which had been relaxed during Ramadan, but that has not stopped some families from planning getaways to luxury beachfront hotels.
However, Muslims in many countries are set for frugal celebrations amid growing financial distress.
The twin shocks of coronavirus restrictions and falling oil prices have plunged the region into the worst economic crisis in decades.
The lockdowns have hit businesses hard, including retailers who would normally be preparing for the festive rush, as Muslims save their money for masks, gloves and other COVID-19 protective gear.
In the Syrian capital Damascus, Eid shoppers rummaged through flea markets for clothes at bargain prices as the war-ravaged and sanctions-hit country grapples 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 told AFP.
“Had it not been for this place, I wouldn’t have been able to buy new clothes at all.”
But promising some laughs in these dire times, 40 Muslim comedians from across the world will host a virtual show on Sunday called “The Socially Distant Eid Comedy Night”.
“This Ramadan has been particularly difficult for communities around the world,” said Muddassar Ahmed, head of the Concordia Forum, the organiser of the event.
“We’re proud to be pulling together some of the brightest Muslim comedic talent to entertain those celebrating the Eid festival at home, people looking to learn a little bit about Muslim culture, or really anyone in need of a good laugh.”
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