JAKARTA: Despite restrictions on mass gatherings as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, worshippers in Indonesia — which has the world’s largest Muslim population — continue to attend prayers at mosques.
Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian acknowledged in a recent press briefing that mass prayers are still taking place across the country and said that forcing mosques to close remained a challenge as issues related to religion are “very sensitive.”
“We are not banning religious activities,” he said. “But any mass gathering is very dangerous, because it is really a potential medium for the spread of the virus.”
Indonesia has not imposed a nationwide lockdown, and Doni Monardo, chief of the national COVID-19 task force, said on Tuesday in an online press briefing that it is up to regional governments to implement their response to the pandemic according to local conditions.
In 24 regions, including Jakarta, East Java’s Surabaya and Sidoarjo, and Gorontalo in Sulawesi island, local administrations have introduced comparatively strict measures, but congregational prayers continue to be held.
“We still pray (at mosques) and we are doing it in a way that will not attract any attention,” Anwar, a resident of Gorontalo City, told Arab News, adding that they closed the curtains and turned off the lights when praying. “We tell the congregants to wear masks and to wash their hands before prayers.”
He said it was “unfair” to close mosques while markets and shops remained open.
In Surabaya, the capital of East Java — which has the most cases of COVID-19 in the country, outside of Jakarta — the popular Sunan Ampel Mosque remains open.
“The imam always reminds congregants to be at least one meter apart before starting the prayer,” mosque caretaker Abdul Nasir Abdul Rahman told Arab News.
The Surabaya administration has discovered that 386 of the city’s 2,504 mosques are still conducting Taraweeh and Friday prayers. Administration spokesman Muhammad Fikser acknowledged that there have been requests from local religious leaders and mosque caretakers for exemptions to the restrictions placed upon them.
“We are evaluating ways to address this issue and to find the solution,” he told Arab News.
In nearby Sidoarjo, officials tested Taraweeh prayer congregants at Al Ikhklas Mosque last week, and confirmed that six of the 120 people they tested were infected with COVID-19.
In the capital city, Jakarta, where more than 5,000 people have contracted COVID-19, the majority of mosques have been adhering to the pray-at-home orders. However, some still defy them, including one in the city’s densely populated Tambora area, where an 82-year-old imam continued to lead Taraweeh prayers despite testing positive for the virus.
In areas where local administrations have not imposed strict anti-coronavirus measures, such as Klaten in Central Java province, many mosques have now returned to business as usual after initially closing their doors.
“We apply hygiene measures and we don’t allow those who just returned from the big cities to join us,” said Suratmin, the imam of Klaten’s Al Huda Mosque, adding that Friday congregations have resumed, as some believed that Muslim men who skipped the obligatory prayer three times could be considered “infidels.”