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Pandemic Brings Gloom to Muslims Marking Month of Ramadan

Muslim men perform an evening prayer called 'tarawih' marking the first evening of Ramadan despite concerns of the new coronavirus outbreak at the Islamic Centre Mosque in Lhokseumawe, Aceh province, Indonesia, April 23, 2020.
Muslim men perform an evening prayer called 'tarawih' marking the first evening of Ramadan despite concerns of the new coronavirus outbreak at the Islamic Centre Mosque in Lhokseumawe, Aceh province, Indonesia, April 23, 2020.

Millions of Muslims in Asia on Friday started the holiest month on the Islamic calendar under the coronavirus lockdown or strict social restrictions, deepening their anxiety over the disease.

For many, Ramadan is a time to get closer to God, family and community, but the pandemic has upended those traditions. Many face unemployment, travel plans to visit relatives have been canceled and places where they usually break the daytime fast with families such as malls, parks and mosques are locked.

"This is too sad to be remembered in history," said Belm Febriansyah, a resident in the capital of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Social restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus have been extended in Jakarta, the epicenter of the outbreak in Indonesia, which has recorded more COVID-19 fatalities than any other Asian country except China. Indonesia counted 8,211 infections and 689 deaths.

Passenger flights and rail services have been suspended, preventing people from traveling to their hometowns in an annual exodus to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. Authorities also banned private cars from leaving Jakarta.

The government of Muslim-majority Malaysia also extended the lockdown by two more weeks to May 12, although its daily virus cases have dropped significantly to double-digits in the past week. The country now has 5,603 cases, including 95 deaths.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in a televised speech late Thursday on the eve of Ramadan that people's "jihad" against the COVID-19 pandemic has shown results but needed to be prolonged.

Malaysia, along with neighboring Singapore and Brunei, has banned popular Ramadan bazaars where food, drinks and clothing are sold in congested open-air markets or roadside stalls. The bazaars are a source of key income for many small traders. Some have shifted their businesses online.

Pakistan's southern Sindh province has banned Ramadan prayers after the Pakistan Medical Association pleaded with Prime Minister Imran Khan and the country's religious leaders to rethink their refusal to close mosques countrywide.

Even as Pakistan's confirmed cases of COVID-19 have begun to increase by 600 and 700 a day, compared to earlier daily jumps of about 300, Khan has refused to order mosques closed. Instead he left it to clerics__ some of whom have called for adherents to pack mosques and trust their faith to protect them.

Pakistan recorded 642 new cases in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of known infections to 11,155 with 237 deaths. Khan has criticized Sindh's Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah of being too zealous in his restrictions. Shah's Pakistan People's Party is politically opposed to Khan's Justice Party.

Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital and the country's financial hub, has the second largest number of cases in Pakistan.

Communal sharing meals have been banned in Turkey during Ramadan.

The Interior Ministry also barred iftar tents providing food to break the fast, and Ramadan drummers, who mark fasting times by going door-to-door to collect tips.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca tweeted that the month of Ramadan should not be "an excuse to relax precautions."

"The month of blessings should not result in illness," he said.

Ramadan in India begins on Saturday, but it has been marred by rising vilification of Muslims following accusations that a surge in infections was tied to a three-day meeting in March in New Delhi of an Islamic missionary group, the Tablighi Jamaat.

Some leaders of India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party labeled the meeting as "corona terrorism" and "Talibani crime."

As a result, many Muslims have faced renewed stigma, threats and boycott of vendors venturing into Hindu-dominated neighborhoods.

The lockdown in India, the world's most draconian, has multiplied their troubles. During Ramadan, many would look up for community meals, alms and elaborate rituals giving them a sense of community.

A group of over two dozen Indian Muslim scholars, in a recent joint message, appealed to their communities to strictly follow the lockdown and offer all prayers at their homes. They also asked Muslims to refrain from organizing large parties held for breaking the fast and taraweeh, the long post-iftar congregational prayer offered in mosques.

"Families should use this unprecedented situation for spiritual guidance and purification," they said, while asking local volunteers and elders to look after the needy and destitute.
India's 200 million Muslims, 14% of the population, are the largest minority group in the Hindu-majority nation, but they are also the poorest.