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Muslims celebrate major holiday amid curfews, virus fears

This year stay-at-home orders mean many can only celebrate with immediate family, with virus fears dampening the holiday spirit.

Muslims around the world on Sunday began celebrating Eid al-Fitr, a normally festive holiday marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, with millions under strict stay-at-home orders and many fearing renewed coronavirus outbreaks.

The three-day holiday is usually a time of travel, family get-togethers and lavish daytime feasts after weeks of dawn-to-dusk fasting. But this year many of the world's 1.8 billion Muslims will have to pray at home and make due with video calls. 

Some countries, including Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, have imposed round-the-clock holiday curfews. But even where many restrictions have been lifted, celebrations will be subdued because of fears of the pandemic and its economic fallout. 

Saudi Arabia, home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, is under a complete lockdown, with residents only permitted to leave their homes to purchase food and medicine.

In Jerusalem, Israeli police said they broke up an "illegal demonstration" and arrested two people outside the Al-Aqsa mosque, which Muslim authorities have closed for prayers since mid-March and will not reopen until after the holiday. Worshippers who tried to enter the compound scuffled with the police.

Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam and would ordinarily welcome tens of thousands of worshippers during the Eid. The hilltop compound is also the holiest site for Jews, who know it as the Temple Mount. The site has long been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Iran, which is battling the deadliest outbreak in the Middle East, allowed communal prayers at some mosques but cancelled the annual mass Eid prayers in Tehran led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran has reported over 130,000 cases and more than 7,000 deaths.

In Dubai, the skyscraper-studded commercial hub in the United Arab Emirates, authorities set up barricades and police checkpoints around an industrial area housing foreign laborers. The Emirates is trying to reopen its hard-hit economy, but cases continue to rise. The UAE has reported over 28,000 confirmed cases and 244 deaths.

The virus causes mild to moderate flu-like symptoms in most patients, who recover within two to three weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health conditions.

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, has reported nearly 22,000 infections and 1,350 fatalities, the most in Southeast Asia. Lockdown orders intended to contain the pandemic mean there will be no congregational prayers at mosques or even open fields, no family reunions, no relatives bearing gifts for children.

Credit: AP
Bosnian muslims, some wearing face masks to protect themselves from the COVID-19 infection, attend Eid al-Fitr prayers in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sunday, May 24, 2020. (AP)

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"This outbreak is not just dampening spirits of Eid, but also has made the tradition entirely different," said Andieka Rabbani, a university student in Jakarta. This year, like many Indonesians, he will only see family and friends through video calls.

In neighboring Muslim-majority Malaysia, businesses have mostly reopened after weeks of lockdown. But mass gatherings are still banned and people are not allowed to travel back to their hometowns for the holiday. Police have turned away more than 5,000 cars and have warned of strict penalties for those who try to sneak home.

Malaysians are only allowed to visit relatives who live nearby, and only on Sunday, with gatherings limited to 20 people. Mosques have reopened but are limited to small congregations of up to 30. Malaysia has reported 7,185 infections and 115 deaths. 

Rohaizam Zainuddin said he felt blessed he could celebrate Eid with his elderly parents living nearby, but his sister in another state could not return home.

"We are frustrated that celebration this year is not the same," he said. "But there is no point getting angry. We just have to accept it, life goes on."

He and his family members are still wearing new clothes and preparing traditional dishes. Plates of cookies are set out for any visitors, alongside a thermometer and hand sanitizer. 

In Pakistan, Eid is being celebrated in the shadow of the coronavirus and in the wake of a passenger plane crash near Karachi on Friday that killed 97 people. 

For the first time, Pakistan is celebrating Eid countrywide on the same day, ending an annual controversy between rival committees over the moon sighting that signals the start of the holiday. 

Pakistan has taken measures to control the spread of the coronavirus since mid-March, but Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to close mosques during Ramadan despite pleas from doctors and a rising number of infections. Pakistan has reported more than 52,000 cases and more than 1,100 deaths. 

More than 1,000 worshippers gathered and prayed shoulder-to-shoulder in an open field in Karachi on Sunday, with only a few of them wearing masks.

In neighboring Afghanistan, the government and Taliban insurgents announced a three-day cease-fire in honor of the holiday.

Some 2,000 Muslims gathered for Eid al-Fitr prayers Sunday at a sports complex in the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, carefully spaced apart and wearing masks, according to France-Info radio. Traditional embraces were not allowed.

France is allowing religious services to resume for the first time since March, but France's leading Muslim organization, CFCM, advised mosques to stay closed Sunday. The CFCM said the government decree didn't give mosques enough time to procure masks and hand gel to ensure that gatherings don't turn into super-spreading events.

Virus restrictions remain in place in the mostly-Muslim Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. In the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, mosques reopened on May 6 after seven weeks of lockdown. Worshippers must wear masks and practice social distancing, and older individuals were urged to continue praying at home.

Naim Ternava, the mufti of Kosovo's Islamic community, led prayers in a mosque in front of a small group of imams sitting 1.5 meters (yards) apart, with the sermon broadcast outside on loudspeakers.

"I invite you to be patient a little bit more until we overcome the danger," he said.

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Karmini reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Kathy Gannon in Islamabad; Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Angela Charlton in Paris and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed.