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Eid Traditions Become 'Very Different' For Muslims In The Age Of Coronavirus

Iranian Muslims perform the Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Abdul Azim shrine in southern Tehran in June 2019.
Iranian Muslims perform the Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Abdul Azim shrine in southern Tehran in June 2019.

As Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Fitr this weekend -- the breaking of the monthlong Ramadan fast -- precautions against the coronavirus are preventing some aspects of the Islamic holiday from being celebrated in the usual way.

Depending on the sighting of the moon, Eid celebrations this year will begin either on May 23 or May 24.

But many Eid prayer gatherings, outdoor festivals, and other public celebrations have been canceled around the world this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Travel restrictions are also making it difficult for some extended families to come together for the traditional holiday feast -- gatherings that health experts warn could result in fresh outbreaks of the disease.

State-sponsored political rallies tied to the end of Ramadan have been curtailed, for example.

And many markets that normally would be crowded with shoppers ahead of the Eid festival have been closed due to lockdown orders.

Even the tradition of giving money to the poor has been impacted by public health restrictions and concerns that the disease could be transmitted to those who handle infected money.

Gathering Together, Apart

Experts say the biggest threat to public health during Eid al-Fitr is the tradition of communities gathering at mosques for prayers -- a practice considered obligatory by some Islamic clerics and seen as optional by others.

Even in conservative Muslim communities where mosques have remained open throughout Ramadan, some worshippers are opting out of going to the mosque for Eid prayers this year.

The Afghan village of Tagab, northeast of Kabul in Kapisa Province, is a community where villagers are expected to be at the mosque for prayers.

But the pandemic is on the minds of many there.

Earlier this week, the bodies of three coronavirus victims in Tagab were returned from the Kabul hospital where they died.

“It will be very different from previous Eids,” Tagab resident Fazal Rabi told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan.

“Just now I met a friend from my work place,” Rabi explained. “He told me that I have not been seen recently in the mosque and wanted to know if I was busy.

“I told him I’m not busy -- so it can’t be a pretext for not attending prayers in the mosque. But I told him it is because of the ongoing quarantine,” Rabi said. “The coronavirus pandemic is here and, therefore, I don’t go to the mosque.”

Men cook potatoes at a small traditional factory in preparation for Eid al-Fitr in Kabul on May 21.
Men cook potatoes at a small traditional factory in preparation for Eid al-Fitr in Kabul on May 21.

In nearby Laghman Province, in the town of Mehtarlam, Imran Arab plans to start the Eid holiday the way he does every year. After bathing in the morning, he will put on new clothes before the local imam recites the Eid prayers.

Just like other Eid al-Fitr festivals, Arab will eat some cake and recite "takbeerat" in praise of Allah.

But Arab and his family are staying away from the crowd gathering at their local mosque this year.

“I also have this fear of the coronavirus and I have a plan to stay at home,” Arab said. “If I did the Eid prayer in the mosque, well, in that case, we will be forced to stay at home” under quarantine with the disease.

Sardar Mohammad, a resident of Pul-e Charkhi near Kabul, says people should give up the idea of gathering together for Eid prayers this year.

“They must pay attention and impose these restrictions on themselves,” he says, noting that dozens of inmates at Pul-e Charkhi prison have tested positive for the virus and several families nearby have also been infected.

“Thousands of different people come together to pray,” he said. “If just one person with the coronavirus comes there, they can infect 100 other people and devastate the whole village.”

Russia's 'Unique' Celebrations

The grand mufti of Russia, Talgat Tadzhuddin, says the entire month of Ramadan has been “unique” this year.

Russia’s top Muslim cleric endorsed the closure of mosques during Ramadan due to the pandemic and has insisted there be no mass gatherings for group prayers.

Tadzhuddin says followers are not obliged to go to a mosque for group prayers.

Instead, he has said worshippers can fulfill their Ramadan obligations online by watching imams lead prayers and read from the Koran.

Muslims pray outside the Moscow Cathedral Mosque during celebrations of Eid al-Fitr on June 4, 2019.
Muslims pray outside the Moscow Cathedral Mosque during celebrations of Eid al-Fitr on June 4, 2019.

In Moscow in recent years, authorities have been forced to close streets during Eid al-Fitr because of enormous overflowing crowds gathering at the city’s main mosques -- including many migrant workers from predominantly Muslim countries.

But this year, Moscow’s mosques will remain closed through the Eid holiday.

Meanwhile, in Russia's North Caucasus region of Daghestan, authorities announced on May 21 that the cities of Kizlyar and Kizilyurt will be locked down for the duration of the four-day Eid holiday.

In neighboring Chechnya, where gathering at mosques for Eid prayers is considered an obligation for Muslims, authorities also have canceled prayer gatherings and ordered mosques to remain closed.

Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov expanded those restrictions further on May 21, announcing a four-day ban on all "movement" by people across Chechnya except for staff from the emergency services.

Alkhanov said those who violate the ban from May 23 to May 26 "will be punished in accordance with the law."

Later that day, it was reported that Ramzan Kadyrov -- the Kremlin-backed authoritarian leader of Chechnya -- was put under medical observation in Moscow due to a suspected coronavirus infection, according to Russian news agencies.

Muslims attend Friday Prayers in the old bazaar during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Skopje on May 15.
Muslims attend Friday Prayers in the old bazaar during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Skopje on May 15.

Salakh Mezhiev, the mufti of Chechnya, has called on Muslims to celebrate Eid al-Fitr at home with their families.

Such restrictions also impact the tradition of charity, which is a pillar of Islam and an important aspect of Ramadan.

Normally, worshippers attending Eid prayers give cash gifts to poor people near the mosques.

This year, even activists from foundations that help impoverished people in the North Caucasus and Moscow say they will not set up their traditional Ramadan charity tents.

Rustan Minnikhanov, the president of Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan, informed Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 20 that Eid al-Fitr will only be celebrated by Muslims in their homes this year.

Central Asian Cancellations

In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Islamic clerics this week also announced they are canceling the traditional public gatherings at mosques for Eid prayers.

In fact, all former Soviet republics in Central Asia this year have banned gatherings for iftar -- the nightly, fast-breaking meal served after sundown throughout the month of Ramadan.

In Kazakhstan, Grand Mufti Nauryzbai Kazhy Tanganuly announced the cancellation of all special prayer gatherings at mosques across the country.

Neighboring Uzbekistan has also ordered mosques across the country closed during the month of Ramadan.

Officials there have asked that charitable donations be given to special centers for the poor rather than directly to people at their homes in order to reduce person-to-person contact.

Relaxed Rules In Pakistan, Iran

To be sure, the adherence to health precautions during Ramadan has varied from country to country.

In neighboring Pakistan, mosques that had been closed in March and April have been opened for congregational prayers. Other strict lockdown rules have also been relaxed.

RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal reports that many people gathering in Pakistani mosques are not taking proper health precautions.

The relaxation of lockdown rules also has resulted in throngs of people flooding public bazaars to buy food and gifts for the holiday.

In early March, holy shrines and mosques across Iran, like this one in Qom, were ordered closed.
In early March, holy shrines and mosques across Iran, like this one in Qom, were ordered closed.

In Iran, hit hard by the pandemic, the government says communal Eid al-Fitr prayers will be allowed in areas that have been designated as “low risk.”

Travel restrictions between Iranian provinces have also been lifted in time for Eid, allowing extended families to come together and celebrate the feast.

In early March, mosques and holy shrines across Iran were ordered closed -- prompting angry Shi’ite hard-liners to storm shrines in the cities of Qom and Mashhad.

But in recent weeks, mosques have been allowed to reopen in more than 130 “low-risk” towns and cities -- provided they observe strict health precautions.

Worshippers who enter mosques in Iran must wear masks and gloves and can only stay inside for 30 minutes.

Iran’s mosques are also prohibited from serving food and drinks, and they must provide hand sanitizer to worshippers.

“Social distancing is more important than collective prayer,” President Hassan Rohani declared on May 4 when Iran’s mosques began to reopen.

Tehran has also reluctantly canceled nationwide Quds Day rallies that have been staged each year since 1979 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared the last Friday of Ramadan as a day for Muslims to express outrage at Israel and solidarity with Palestinians.

Initially, Iranian officials considered motorcade parades to replace the government-sponsored anti-Israel marches and public rallies.

But even the idea of motorcade parades has been dropped amid reports of fresh COVID-19 outbreaks in some parts of the country.

Instead, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a nationally televised speech on May 22.

As of May 21, Iran had reported about 130,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus including more than 7,200 deaths -- although experts suspect Tehran has been underreporting the full extent of its outbreak.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Afghanistan, Radio Mashaal, Current Time, and RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz, Tajik, and North Caucasus services

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