MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Muslims in many parts of the world marked the start of Ramadan on Tuesday, but an increase in coronavirus cases in several countries once again put a brake on the iconic holidays of the holy month and long prayers in mosques.
Still, there were glimpses that Ramadan 2021 could feel less restricted than last year, when Islam’s holiest period coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, mosques have reopened and limits on movement have eased as vaccine launches continue in Muslim-majority nations. Clergymen in places like Indonesia have issued assurances that the vaccine does not break the daytime fast.
Ramadan is marked by longer prayers, fasts from dawn to dusk, and evening parties with family and friends, although crowded gatherings shoulder-to-shoulder in mosques and large gatherings for lunch remain banned due to the continued spread of the coronavirus across the country. world.
Throughout Ramadan, Muslims abstain from any food or drink, including water, from morning to night. The one-month practice aims to increase the remembrance of God, curb unhealthy habits, and deepen gratitude.
In Mecca, home to the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, Muslims performed socially distanced “taraweeh” prayers, marking the start of Ramadan. Practicing Muslims around the world pray towards the Kaaba five times a day.
Only a limited number of worshipers were allowed inside the Great Mosque that houses the Kaaba to prevent the spread of the virus. Saudi authorities only allowed people who had been vaccinated or who had recently recovered from the virus to perform taraweeh prayers at the Kaaba.
In Lebanon, most Muslims started Ramadan on Tuesday amid soaring inflation. The small country is in the grip of the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history, with the Lebanese currency losing around 80% of its value against the US dollar in recent months.
The crisis, the result of decades of endemic corruption and mismanagement, has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Many people had to reduce their preparations for Ramadan.
“We cannot buy anything. We asked how much lettuce, cucumber and tomato cost, ”Samiyeh al-Turk said at a busy open-air market in Beirut on Monday. “How are we going to spend the month of Ramadan? I don’t know, ”he added.
Israel was allowing 10,000 fully vaccinated Palestinian residents of the West Bank to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque on the first Friday of Ramadan. Jerusalem’s holy mosque is open for prayers during Ramadan amid the rapid launch of vaccination in Israel.
“We hope it will be a good month after the great setback the whole world was exposed to,” said Reyad Hallaq, owner of the Jerusalem store.
In the densely populated Gaza Strip, the nightly curfew is aimed at restricting family gatherings while the virus continues to spread there.
The restrictions mean that Bessan Mabhouh is unable to see her parents and meet for iftar, as she often would multiple times during Ramadan.
“During the day, I am also struggling to help my children with their remote learning, so I don’t think this Ramadan will be pleasant away from my family,” he said.
In Iraq, the curfew will be maintained from 7 pm to 5 am throughout Ramadan, with full closure on weekends. The Health Ministry warned that failure to comply with these measures could lead to continuous shutdowns lasting three days. Citing financial concerns for business owners, restaurants and patisseries will be able to operate, but only through home delivery.
Meanwhile, a 10-day lockdown went into effect on Tuesday due to rising infections in areas of northeastern Syria controlled by US-backed fighters. The region, which borders Iraq and Turkey, is home to 5 million people.
In Indonesia, COVID-19 cases are also increasing. Mosques are allowed to open for Ramadan prayers with strict protocols.
The government will allow people to hold “iftar” meetings during Ramadan in restaurants, shopping malls and cafes, which can open at 50% capacity. Iftar is the coveted time when Muslims traditionally break their all-day fast by eating dates and drinking a sip of water before feasting with friends and family.
“Ending the restrictions is like a breath of fresh air for us who are weary from this COVID-19 outbreak,” said Anna Mardyastuti, a resident of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. “Yes, they should act to stop the virus, but not block the door to worship or change our Ramadan tradition completely.”
In Muslim-majority neighboring Malaysia, 21-year-old Wan Noradriana Balqis welcomed the return of communal prayers in mosques, but said she will avoid crowded Ramadan bazaars. Coronavirus cases in Malaysia have more than tripled since January.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to reopen the bazaars. The rules are there, but many people do not follow them, “said the administrative official of the database.
Vaccines pose a challenge for Muslim nations that administer injections during Ramadan. Officials were working to ease concerns about Islamic teaching that Muslims should refrain from “letting nothing enter the body” between sunrise and sunset.
Indonesia’s top clergy council went so far as to say that Muslims who can receive vaccines are “required” to be vaccinated during Ramadan.
Meanwhile, governments were also working to maintain some restrictions.
In India, where infections have peaked in recent days, academics are asking the country’s 200 million Muslims to follow anti-virus protocols and refrain from large gatherings. Many Indian cities facing waves of viruses have imposed night curfews and it is unclear whether worshipers will be allowed to perform taraweeh prayers in mosques.
In Pakistan and Iran, the fast is expected to start on Wednesday.
The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has refused to close mosques in Pakistan, even as new infections reach levels similar to those at the start of the pandemic. Mosque leaders are entrusted to ensure that no one over the age of 50 enters and that social distancing is maintained, but adherents rarely follow these restrictions.
Muslims in Indian-controlled Kashmir continue to suffer two consecutive blockades that left tens of thousands without means to earn a living. The disputed region, the only Hindu-dominated part of India that is overwhelmingly Muslim, came under an unprecedented military blockade in 2019 before coronavirus blockades were imposed last year. Local charities plan to distribute Ramadan ration packages to families in need.
And in Egypt, the government prevented mosques from serving free meals during Ramadan and banned traditional charitable iftar that gathered strangers at long tables.
Karmini reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India; Kathy Gannon in Islamabad; Zeina Karam and Fadi Tawil in Beirut; Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal; Samy Magdy in Cairo and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.