Virus locks stifle Eid celebrations as infections increase

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Muslims around the world began to celebrate a somber Eid al-Fitr Sunday, many with Coronavirus blocking, but lax restrictions gave believers in some countries a respite despite the fear of exploding infections.

The three-day festival, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, is traditionally celebrated with mosque prayers, family celebrations and the purchase of new clothes, gifts and sweet treats.

This year, however, the celebration is overshadowed by the rapidly spreading corona virus. Many countries are tightening blocking restrictions after a partial relaxation during Ramadan has led to a sharp increase in infections.

Many countries – from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Turkey and Syria – have banned mass prayer meetings to limit the spread of the disease.

Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam, began a five-day curfew around the clock from Saturday after infections had more than quadrupled since the beginning of Ramadan – the highest in the Gulf.

There have been almost no worshipers in the Mecca Great Mosque since March. Sacred Kaaba – the large cube-shaped structure that Muslims around the world pray to is surrounded by a breathtaking emptiness.

But on Sunday an imam stood on a podium while Saudi security forces, some with masks, stood between rows of believers gathering outside the Kaaba for oath prayers.

– Brawls in Jerusalem –

In Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, interior prayers were not permitted, although the site is expected to reopen after the Eid holidays.

A small brawl broke out between Israeli security forces and believers gathering around the mosque at dawn, although the prayers finally took place outside, an AFP photographer said.

In Gaza, despite the enclave’s first coronavirus death on Saturday, Hamas authorities allowed prayers in mosques, but believers mostly wore masks and spread their prayer mats wide apart.

“Oath is not an oath with the Corona virus atmosphere – people feel anxious,” said worshiper Akram Taher.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire to surprise Eid al-Fitr after months of bloody fighting with Afghan forces after the signing of a landmark deal with the United States.

The streets of Kabul were mostly empty as a result of a strict closure, but some people ventured out and greeted each other – some from afar and others hugging and shaking hands despite demanding social distance.

In Somalia, at least five people were killed and more than 20 injured during the oath celebrations, police said.

The explosion occurred when a crowd danced and sang, a witness said, but the cause of the explosion was unclear.

In India-administered Kashmir, another problem area, the oath celebrations were curbed under the coronavirus restrictions and when the authorities tightened the screws after a flood of clashes between government forces and rebels.

– Fears of ‘new climax’ –

Before the holiday, Muslims across Asia – from Indonesia to Pakistan, Malaysia and Afghanistan – had overcrowded shopping markets, violated corona virus guidelines, and sometimes even tried to disperse large crowds.

“My children were connected for more than two months,” said the mother of four, Ishrat Jahan, at a busy market in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.

“This festival is for the kids, and if they can’t celebrate it with new clothes, there’s no point in us working so hard all year round.”

The vacation began bleakly after a Pakistan International Airline flight crashed in the southern city of Karachi on Friday, killing 97 people, including many who traveled to visit their family for the vacation.

The English daily Dawn said that the crash, along with the pandemic, “took away the little joy that remained in the prospect of an oath”.

In Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim nation – people turned to smugglers and counterfeit travel documents to circumvent bans on the annual end of Ramadan trip that could increase infections.

In the conservative province of Aceh, large groups prayed with few masks and little social distance when Eid started, and the Baiturrahman mosque in the provincial capital was full.

“I felt concerned, but as a Muslim, I still had to make mass oath prayers to thank Allah,” said one worshiper, Arsi.

The number of COVID-19 fatalities in the Middle East and Asia has been lower than in Europe and the United States, but the number is steadily increasing, raising concerns that the virus could often overwhelm underfunded health systems.

– frugal celebrations –

Iran, which has seen the deadliest outbreak in the Middle East, has urged its citizens to avoid travel during the oath as it struggles to fight the virus.

Health Minister Saeed Namaki said Iran is focusing heavily on avoiding “new spikes in disease” caused by people who “fail to comply with health regulations.”

The United Arab Emirates tightened its lockout during Ramadan, but that didn’t stop some families from planning short breaks in luxury hotels on the beach.

In many countries, Muslims prepared for thrifty celebrations amid growing financial hardships, including falling oil prices that plunged the Gulf region into the worst economic crisis in decades.

In the Syrian capital of Damascus, oath buyers flea marketed for clothes at bargain prices when the war-torn and sanctioned country struggled with a much more entrenched economic crisis.

“The flea market is the only place I can buy something new for the Eid holiday,” said 28-year-old Sham Alloush.

“If it weren’t for this place, I wouldn’t have been able to buy new clothes at all.”

burs-ac / sls / hkb / dwo

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