Work is worship: Indonesia’s 5,000 mosque counters seek to answer one question

Work is worship: Indonesia’s 5,000 mosque counters seek to answer one question
A visitor walks outside the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh. (File/AFP)
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Updated 27 March 2021

Work is worship: Indonesia’s 5,000 mosque counters seek to answer one question

Work is worship: Indonesia’s 5,000 mosque counters seek to answer one question
  • Government-appointed team has been scouting across the archipelago for the past seven years to document every Muslim place of worship
  • “This is a never-ending job with new mosques and musallas constructed all the time,” Affan told Arab News

JAKARTA: Fakhry Affan could easily qualify as a human catalog with information on every Muslim place of worship across Indonesia.
For the past seven years, the official from the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) has been in charge of its Sistem Informasi Masjid (SIMAS), or Mosque Information System — a digitized database to find out how many mosques the world’s largest Muslim majority nation has.
“This is a never-ending job with new mosques and musallas constructed all the time,” Affan told Arab News.
A musalla is an open space outside a mosque, mainly used for prayer. 
The idea is to get the best estimate on the number of mosques in the country, where more than 80 percent of its 270 million population is Muslim.
Affan said that before the SIMAS’ establishment in 2013, various agencies had issued different estimates on the total number of mosques in the country without providing any official reference.
The ministry’s manual data itself listed more than 741,000 mosques, while then-Vice President Jusuf Kalla was quoted in 2018 as saying that there were more mosques than schools in the country and that “only God knows” how many mosques Indonesia had.
“We were challenged by the difference in the numbers, so we started digitalizing the data in 2013 to verify and validate our manual data,” Affan told Arab News.
Helping him with the project is a dedicated team of 5,000 MRA personnel, down to the sub-district level across Indonesia.
Their task? To register and digitize data on the various sites, irrespective of size, where Muslims can pray in the respective areas.
Each place registered, from the Istiqlal Mosque — the state mosque in the capital Jakarta — to a prayer room inside a restaurant, gets its own identification number, with a brief description of the place and how to get there.
“We register them all one by one. If, for example, a mall has more than one prayer room located on different floors of the building, we list each prayer room individually,” Affan said.
It is a common sight in Indonesia to find mosque signage outside an eatery, to inform Muslim customers that they have a place to pray in the vicinity.
When Arab News interviewed Affan last Monday, his team had gathered information on 599,486 mosques and musallas.
“In 10 minutes, the number could change. It’s constantly updated by colleagues nationwide,” he said.
As of Saturday, that number had increased to 600,581 — almost 80 percent from the manual number provided and out of the 90 percent target that Affan and his team aim to reach by the year-end.
There are hurdles, of course, Affan said, such as collecting data from the country’s eastern region and remote, far-flung islands in the sprawling archipelago of 17,000 islands, which usually trickles in due to slow Internet connectivity.
The team also deploys a drone to get pictures of the mosque and its surroundings from various angles. Many mosques are too big to capture with a regular camera or are located in a densely populated neighborhood with narrow alleys, making it challenging to get a complete photograph.
Since 99 percent of the mosques are constructed and maintained by the local community, Muhammad Agus Salim, the MRA’s director of Islamic affairs and Sharia development, said that having an official and verified mosque catalog would serve as a “basic reference” for government policies related to mosques, such as local community empowerment, construction and renovation, water and sanitation improvement, caretakers’ capacity building, and religious moderation to prevent mosques from becoming a place that spread extreme Islamic teachings.
“This data collection is crucial in mapping Muslims’ potential in Indonesia. We did not have official data on imams, mosque caretakers and youth clubs, so we were unable to allocate a budget to mosques development,” Salim told Arab News.
Developing youth clubs would also encourage young people to become mosque activists and imams, he added.
It would also ensure transparency in alms’ collections and donations, for which the MRA is working with financial authorities to allow mosques with verified data to open a Shariah bank account as well.
Secretary-general of the Indonesian Mosque Council (DMI), Imam Addaqurutni, told Arab News that the DMI has been working on a similar project for three years.
“We have an open database to which anyone can enter data of a mosque with its coordinates. Once an entry is completed, we will lock it in for verification. We will use the data to develop mosques to be more than just a venue for religious activities,” he said.
Recently, DMI chairman, Jusuf Kalla, said that the government had welcomed the council’s proposal to use mosques as COVID-19 vaccination centers for senior citizens from next month.
Since the two and a half months of rolling out the vaccination campaign, about 3,000 people in three priority groups — medical workers, frontline and public workers, and senior citizens — have received their second jab, while almost 7,000 have had their first jab, out of 40,349,051 in the three groups.
The move is part of the government’s plan to vaccinate 181.5 million by year-end and reach herd immunity.
“We are finalizing the mechanism with the Health Ministry to accelerate the number of senior citizens getting vaccinated,” Addaqurutni said.


India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients

India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients
Updated 4 min 24 sec ago

India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients

India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients
  • More than 260,000 new cases and more than 1,500 deaths recorded on Sunday, setting a new national record

NEW DELHI: An alarming spike in COVID-19 cases has created a crisis across India, particularly in the capital, New Delhi, recording more than 25,000 cases — about one in three of those tested — in the past 24 hours, according to official data.
The situation in New Delhi, which has a population of more than 20 million people, forced Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to write to the federal government seeking more hospital beds. Several health care facilities have said they can no longer accommodate patients, leading to a rise in fatalities due to lack of space, oxygen cylinders and drugs.
“The situation in Delhi is very grim,” Kejriwal wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
He asked the PM to “earmark 7,000 beds out of 10,000 in the federal government-run hospitals in Delhi” for COVID-19 patients to “tide over the crisis.”
“There is an acute dearth of oxygen in Delhi, and it should be supplied immediately,” Kejriwal added.
On Sunday, India registered a record single-day rise of 261,500 coronavirus infections taking the nationwide case total to almost 1.48 million.
More than 1,500 people died from the coronavirus disease on Sunday alone, another record for the nation of 1.39 billion, bringing the national toll to 177,168 deaths.
Several residents in New Delhi said that most private and government hospitals had run out of beds with many patients desperate to get admitted to hospital.
“Since yesterday evening I have been trying to admit my sister in a hospital but seven or eight hospitals I reached refused admission,” Tabish Jamal, a Delhi resident, told Arab News on Sunday.
“My sister’s oxygen level is dipping, and she needs immediate medical intervention, but it’s a grim scenario. We are so helpless,” she said, adding that “a small nursing home with basic facilities” had admitted her sister, but “we are getting desperate.”
Lucknow, the capital of the eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, is also facing a bleak scenario with media reports saying that people were “waiting in hordes to be admitted to hospitals,” with at least 50 seen queueing outside the King George’s Medical University, the city’s main facility.
“It’s a grim scenario in the city and around Lucknow,” Kulsum Mustafa, a senior journalist in Lucknow, said on Sunday.
She accused the government of “hiding the exact figures and not showing the true picture.”
“The fact is that there is not only an acute shortage of beds and oxygen, but the testing facilities are minimal too,” Mustafa said.
India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh reported close to 27,550 cases on Sunday making it the second-worst affected area, after the western state of Maharashtra, which had registered more than 67,000 patients in the past 24 hours.
Meanwhile, in the western state of Gujarat, which is PM Modi’s home state, officials reported scenes of “chaos at most hospitals” in the capital city of Ahmedabad.
“Ahmedabad city, like other places in India, is facing a shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and important medicines such as Remdesivir,” Dr. Mona Desai, chief of Ahmedabad Medical Association, said on Sunday.
“With the new variant of coronavirus, the oxygen level starts to dip very soon, and the state is not prepared to supply oxygen to all. The timely intervention of oxygen is important; otherwise, vital organs fail,” she added.
On Sunday, Gujarat registered nearly 10,000 cases, which Desai said is “not the real figure.”
“The death toll is high this time, but the government data is not showing that. I don’t know why they hide the data.”
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said that the “oxygen production is being doubled.”
“Oxygen production is being diverted from industrial to medical use. The center is providing additional ventilators to the states,” he told a press conference on Sunday.
He said that Maharashtra, with Mumbai as its capital, would get 1,121 ventilators, Uttar Pradesh 1,700, Jharkhand 1,500, Gujarat 1,600, Madhya Pradesh 152 and Chhattisgarh 230.
Experts and medical practitioners, however, questioned the “sincerity of the government” in fighting the pandemic.”
“It’s more than one year, and the government is not ready to face the challenges posed by a coronavirus,” Mustafa said, adding before questioning the “rationale of allowing the Hindu festival Kumbh to take place in this year.”
The Kumbh Mela is a month-long festival that takes place once every 12 years, with organizers expecting a footfall of 150 million Hindus — equivalent to the population of Russia — to converge on the northern state of Uttarakhand for a ritual dip in holy waters at four dedicated sites this year.
So far, 5 million people have visited the sacred sites since the festival began on April 1.


Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 
Updated 18 April 2021

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 
  • Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna jabs based on technologies used to develop COVID-19 vaccines
  • HIV estimated to have killed 32m people since it was identified in 1981

LONDON: Two teams of scientists are set to begin trials of HIV vaccines based on technologies used to develop COVID-19 jabs.
Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, which was behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, and US pharmaceutical giant Moderna in partnership with Scripps Research, will use different techniques.
The Oxford team’s HIV vaccine utilizes a modified adenovirus taken from chimpanzees, while the Moderna one is based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA).
Both methods have been used successfully to stimulate the human immune system against COVID-19 in the past year.
It is hoped that they can be applied to HIV, the disease that leads to AIDS, which has killed an estimated 32 million people since it was identified in 1981 and currently affects 38 million worldwide, with almost 690,000 dying annually.
The Oxford team is set to start the first phase of trials this month on 101 HIV-negative volunteers aged 18-50 from the UK, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. Moderna will launch two mRNA trials later this year.
The location of the trials in Africa is significant; in recent years, treatments have been discovered to allow many people with HIV to live relatively normal lives, but can cost upward of $500,000 in developed countries.
Despite lower prices in developing countries, treatment is still often unaffordable for many African patients.
It is thought that up to half of the infected population on the continent are not even aware of their condition.
Despite the success in developing various COVID-19 vaccines, HIV remains far harder to treat than coronaviruses given its propensity to lie dormant for long periods, mutate more quickly than any other known disease, and imbed itself in patients’ DNA, making it all but impossible to permanently cure.
Oxford University’s Prof. Tomas Hanke told The Times: “The moment you’re infected with a single virus, it diversifies in your body. For the coronavirus there are four main variants we are worrying about around the world. For HIV we have to deal with 80,000.” 
The team at the Jenner Institute will aim to stimulate the production of T-cells — which destroy other human cells already infected with a virus — through its modified adenovirus, ChAdOx-1, designed to train the cells to specifically recognize HIV. 
Hanke said the T-cells could prove HIV’s “Achilles heel,” targeting areas “essential for the virus to survive and, importantly, common to most virus variants around the globe.”
The team hopes that if successful, the vaccine could be used to treat HIV-positive patients as early as August this year.
The Moderna team, meanwhile, believes that mRNA technology might be able to trigger enough B-cells — the part of the immune system that makes antibodies — to prevent HIV from adapting to its host.
This belief is based on a trial by Scripps Research, which found that in a small sample of 48 people given a similar vaccine, 97 percent showed a strong immune reaction against HIV. 
Moderna’s European head Dan Staner told The Times: “I believe that mRNA technology is going to be revolutionary. It could be something spectacular if we were able, in the coming years, to bring a vaccine to treat HIV. Let’s let the science speak in the coming months and years, but I do think the sky’s the limit.”
Scripps Prof. William Schief said: “The rapid development and high efficacy of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine bodes really well for our work on HIV.”


Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible

Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible
Updated 18 April 2021

Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible

Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible
  • The two countries are NATO allies but at odds over many issues
  • Nikos Dendias says it is not possible to hide disputed issues under the rug

ATHENS: Greece cannot ignore its differences with Turkey over territorial disputes in the Mediterranean and other issues but while a solution is difficult, it is not impossible, its foreign minister told a newspaper on Sunday.
The two countries are NATO allies but at odds over many issues, including competing claims over the extent of their continental shelves in the Mediterranean, air space, energy resources and ethnically split Cyprus.
“It is not possible to hide under the rug issues where we have different views and approaches,” Nikos Dendias told Kathimerini newspaper in an interview.
On Thursday, Dendias and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu clashed openly at a joint news conference in Ankara that began with hopes of improved relations but quickly descended into acrimonious accusations from both sides.
It was the first visit by a Greek foreign minister to Turkey since 2015 in an effort to find common ground for a positive agenda of discussions with Ankara.
Dendias told the paper that while the climate during the talks was good, there was no convergence on many issues.
“The issue we face with Turkey is that there is no common denominator regarding the framework of resolving our differences,” Dendias told the paper.
He said Greece’s view is that demarcating its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf with Turkey in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean must be based on international law.
“I don’t see a toughening of Turkey’s stance on the issues concerning the Aegean and the east Mediterranean. But I do see fixed positions that are beyond international law, which makes resolution prospects difficult but not impossible,” he said.
Dendias said he has invited Cavusoglou to Athens to continue talks and this could help to prepare the ground for a meeting of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.


Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit
Updated 18 April 2021

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit
  • 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners, are covered by the pardon
  • Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019

YANGON: Myanmar’s junta on Saturday released more than 23,000 prisoners to mark the traditional new year holiday, including at least three political detainees, and the military leader behind the February coup confirmed he would attend a regional summit later this month.
It wasn’t immediately clear if those released included pro-democracy activists who were detained for protesting the coup. State broadcaster MRTV said that junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing had pardoned 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported from Myanmar. He also reduced sentences for others.
As security forces continued the deadly crackdown, unconfirmed but credible accounts with photos on social media said that three people were killed Saturday in the central city of Mogok, in Myanmar’s gem mining region.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests, government forces have killed at least 728 protesters and bystanders since the takeover. The group says 3,141 people, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, are in detention.
Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019. They are members of the Peacock Generation performing troupe who were arrested during that year’s new year celebrations for skits that poked fun at military representatives in Parliament and military involvement in business.
Their traditional style of acting is called Thangyat, a mash-up of poetry, comedy and music with a sharp undertone of satire. Several members of the troupe were convicted under a law banning circulation of information that could endanger or demoralize members of the military. The actors may have drawn the special wrath of the military because they performed in army uniforms.
Several members were also found guilty of online defamation for livestreaming their performances. It’s not clear if all of them were released.
Another freed prisoner was Ross Dunkley, an Australian newspaper entrepreneur sentenced in 2019 to 13 years on charges of drug possession. His release was confirmed by his ex-wife Cynda Johnston, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported.
Dunkley co-founded the The Myanmar Times, an English-language daily, but was forced to give up his share in it. He became well-known for co-founding or acquiring English-language publications in formerly socialist states that were seeking foreign investment, but was sometimes criticized for doing business with authoritarian regimes.
Early prisoner releases are customary during major holidays, and this is the second batch the ruling junta has announced since taking power.
Following the release of more than 23,000 convicts to mark Union Day on Feb. 12, there were reports on social media that some were recruited by the authorities to carry out violence at night in residential areas to spread panic, especially by setting fires. Some areas responded by setting up their own neighborhood watch groups.
In March, more than 600 people who were imprisoned for demonstrating against the coup were also released from Insein Prison, a rare conciliatory gesture by the military that appeared aimed at placating the protest movement. They were mostly young people caught in sweeps of street rallies while those considered protest leaders were kept locked up.
Neither the military government nor those opposed to it show any signs of backing off. Western nations have tried to pressure the military through diplomatic and economic sanctions with little effect.
Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors, concerned about the prospects for regional instability, are also trying to get the junta to start back on the path to restoring democracy, or at least end its violent repression.
A spokesman for Thailand’s Foreign Ministry in Bangkok said Saturday that junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has confirmed he will attend a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — ASEAN — expected to be held on April 24.
Tanee Sangrat said in a text message to journalists that Brunei, the current chair of the 10-nation body, confirmed it had proposed the date for a meeting at the group’s secretariat in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Indonesia has taken the lead in calling for the special meeting to discuss the crisis in Myanmar.


US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency

US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency
Updated 18 April 2021

US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency

US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency
  • The US and China, the world’s Nos. 1 and 2 economy, are the top carbon polluters
  • They pump out nearly half of the fossil fuel fumes that are warming the planet’s atmosphere

SEOUL, South Korea: The United States and China, the world’s two biggest carbon polluters, have agreed to cooperate with other countries to curb climate change, just days before President Joe Biden hosts a virtual summit of world leaders to discuss the issue.
The agreement was reached by US special envoy for climate John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhu during two days of talks in Shanghai last week, the State Department said in a statement Saturday.
“The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” the joint statement said.
The US and China, the world’s Nos. 1 and 2 economy are thetop carbon polluters. Their cooperation is key to a success of global efforts to curb climate change, but frayed ties over human rights, trade and China’s territorial claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea have been threatening to undermine such efforts.
Kerry’s Shanghai trip marked the highest-level travel to China by a US official since Biden took office in January. From Shaghai, the former secretary of state flew to South Korea for talks.
Biden has invited 40 world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, to the April 22-23 summit. The US and other countries are expected to announce more ambitious national targets for cutting carbon emissions ahead of or at the meeting, along with pledging financial help for climate efforts by less wealthy nations.
It’s unclear how much Kerry’s China visit would promote US-China cooperation on climate issues.
When Kerry was still in Shanghai, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng signaled Friday that China is unlikely to make any new pledges at next week’s summit.
“For a big country with 1.4 billion people, these goals are not easily delivered,” Le said during an interview with The Associated Press in Beijing. “Some countries are asking China to achieve the goals earlier. I am afraid this is not very realistic.”
On whether Xi would join the summit, Le said “the Chinese side is actively studying the matter.”
During a video meeting with German and French leaders Friday, Xi also said that climate change “should not become a geopolitical chip, a target for attacking other countries or an excuse for trade barriers,” though he called for closer cooperation on the issue, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Biden, who has said that fighting global warming is among his highest priorities, had the United States rejoin the Paris climate accord in the first hours of his presidency, undoing the US withdrawal ordered by predecessor Donald Trump.
Major emitters of greenhouse gases are preparing for the next UN climate summit taking place in Glasgow, UK, in November. The summit aims to relaunch global efforts to keep rising global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) as agreed in the Paris accord.
According to the US-China statement, the two countries would enhance “their respective actions and cooperating in multilateral processes, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement.”
It said both countries “are firmly committed to working together and with other Parties to strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement.”