Despite the threat of COVID-19, mosques in Aceh Province in Indonesia are still holding congregational prayers for Ramadan. Now experts fear that the province's mosques could be at the center of a new infection cluster.
The Maghrib adhan or the Muslim call to prayer after sunset reverberated from a mosque in the city of Banda Aceh, Aceh province. After a day of fasting, Maulana Ibrahim broke his fast and prayed with his family at home.
Outside of his house, several people walked to the mosque for Tarawih prayers — an additional prayer performed during the holy month of Ramadan after the standard evening prayers.
But Ibrahim and his family decided to stay home. "I am worried. What will happen if the coronavirus spreads through the mosque? Or the cafes? Because usually people stop by coffee shops after Tarawih," said Ibrahim.
The local government's decision to allow worship in the mosques in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic is contrary to the recommendation made by the central government, and the Indonesian Ulema Council — the country's top Muslim clerical body — that Tarawih prayers be performed at home.
Under the decision to allow collective worship, which was supported by the Aceh Ulema Consultative Council (MPU), congregants are allowed to perform the traditional Eid al-Fitr prayers together, as well as conduct Silat-a-Rahim — meeting and gathering with relatives during the celebration. The only stipulation is that they take preventive measures, such as wearing masks.
Criticism from doctors
"The worship this year is not much different from last year," said Faisal Ali, the deputy chairman of the MPU. "Of course people must wear masks, but nothing else has changed."
An Acehnese activist, Suraiya Kamaruzzaman, questioned how the council could assure that the spread of the virus could be controlled in mosques. "The MPU does not have the human resources to track it [the virus]. Once the curfew was lifted, the people began praying at the mosque as usual again."
The Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI) has also criticized Aceh's decision. Safrizal Rahman, chairman of the IDI's Aceh branch, said that ignoring physical distancing poses a high risk, because the spread of the coronavirus occurs as a result of close interaction between people.
"A large gathering of people can increase the number of infections. Indeed, Aceh is very religious, but there are already recommendations made by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) about how to safely worship. We appeal to the Aceh government to stop the gatherings," Rahman told DW.
Several other regions of Indonesia also have strong Islamic laws, but still obey the rules of the central government, Rahman added. "For example Gorontalo, in contrast to Aceh, is obeying the central government's appeal not to carry out religious activities."
Who makes the rules?
The Aceh government says that it handed over the matter of worship to the MPU, but the MPU's deputy chairman insists that the council is only responsible for issuing recommendations, and that it's up to the Aceh government and COVID-19 task force to impose stricter regulations.
"The rules must be issued by the government. We only give recommendations," said Ali. "But those recommendations cannot be made law — the government must make the rules."
But the COVID-19 task force says otherwise. "We are asking the citizens to obey the rules set forth by the MPU, so that COVID-19 can be prevented without infringing on community worship during Ramadan," the task force spokesman, Saifullah Abdul Gani, told DW.
He added that the only positive cases in Aceh came from outside of the province, and that there are no recorded cases of local transmission.
However, many doctors, such as Djoerban, believe that the risk of local transmission is still high. "Now we can see that in other regions, the virus has been transmitted between local residents. It means that the number of coronavirus patients could be increasing by the second if we do not take steps to prevent it," Djoerban told DW.
The virus does not discriminate
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Aceh rose to nine on Thursday, but the government has access to a limited number of testing kits.
Djoerban fears that the collective prayers and other communal religious activities in Aceh will give way to a new infection cluster — a result that has been documented in other parts of Indonesia and abroad.
He says that the Aceh government's lack of restrictions cannot be justified. "The point is, you cannot gather in one place. We are now in an emergency situation. This virus does not look at gender nor religion," said Djoerban.