JAKARTA: About a thousand men and women filled the iconic mosque Baiturrahman in Indonesia’s westernmost province of Aceh amid the COVID-19 pandemic, performing evening prayers during the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan.
Some congregants wore face masks while reciting the Tarawih prayers. Others didn’t bother to cover their mouths and noses.
The Indonesian government has repeatedly said that mass prayers should not be held during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, but the guidance issued has not stopped men and women from flocking to the mosques in Aceh.
“We are still holding mass prayers here because of the enthusiasm of the congregants,” the technical head of Baiturrahman mosque in Banda Aceh, Mr Ridwan Johan said on Wednesday (Apr 29).
“But we are adhering to the health protocol given by the government and the Aceh Ulema Council,” Mr Johan added.
This includes providing hand sanitisers, urging people to wear masks and keeping a bit of distance between congregants, he claimed.
Baiturrahman mosque, which survived the deadly 2004 boxing day tsunami that has officially claimed 170,000 lives in Aceh, is not the only mosque to hold Tarawih prayers or other mass prayers such as the Friday prayers.
Ms Eva Andrila, 27, told CNA she also still prays together in groups at a mosque near Aceh’s provincial police headquarters.
She said that she is afraid of the coronavirus, but prefers to pray at a mosque because it is more solemn and she can pray together with everyone else.
“If one performs mass prayers, the reward is bigger.
“So no matter how afraid we are, most importantly is that we believe it is Allah’s provision.”
To protect herself from COVID-19, Ms Andrila said she brings her own prayer rug, uses a mask and hand sanitiser, as well as keeps a distance from the others. She always washes her hands and showers once she arrives home.
NO RED ZONE, NO LARGE-SCALE SOCIAL RESTRICTIONS
Indonesia is the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country where about 90 per cent of its 260 million population is Muslim.
Aceh is the only province in the archipelago which practises Syariah law. It also has special autonomy given by the central government earlier, to end an insurgency for independence.
Since Indonesia reported its first COVID-19 cases in early March, President Joko Widodo has repeatedly appealed for people to work, study and pray from home.
At the end of March, he took a tougher stance and announced that local governments can make regulations on physical distancing to contain COVID-19 by implementing stricter measures known as large-scale social restrictions.
A partial lockdown can be implemented in regions that meet the large-scale social regulations requirements such as having significant COVID-19 cases, provided the regional heads apply for it and it is approved by the health minister.
But as of Thursday, Aceh has 10 COVID-19 cases. It has tested about 120 people.
The deputy chairman of the Aceh Ulema Council, which is part of the provincial government, told CNA that mass prayers are still allowed because Aceh is not a red zone. It has also not implemented large-scale social restrictions.
Mr Faisal Ali revealed that the Acehnese government is mulling over whether to put in place such restrictions, but he does not think the central government will give the approval considering the low number of cases there.
“If Aceh implements large-scale social restrictions, we would not allow mass prayers.”
“But at the moment the spread of COVID-19 in Aceh is still controllable,” he said.
A red zone is designated in Indonesia after a significant increase in the number of cases over a period of time, and with evidence of local transmission.
READ: Cooped up in small homes and lacking awareness, Jakarta’s urban poor find it tough amid partial lockdown
Last month, the Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa against congregational prayers in areas with a lot of COVID-19 cases.
Mr Ali acknowledged the fatwa, but said it is only applicable in areas that have implemented the large-scale social restrictions. Aceh is not one of them, he said.
“So there are no contradictions here with what Jakarta said.”
He noted there are people who do not follow physical distancing measures and health protocols. But without social restrictions in place, the Aceh government cannot sanction people.
The situation in Aceh worries Dr Safrizal Rahman, the head of the Aceh chapter of the Indonesian Medical Association.
According to Dr Rahman, the low number of COVID-19 patients in Aceh does not necessarily mean the province does not have many positive cases.
Only about 120 people have been swabbed for COVID-19 in the province of about 4.7 million people. About 100 are awaiting the test results due to technical problems at the local lab.
“This resulted in a flat COVID-19 curve … I am very afraid of this situation because people here tend to think that everything is normal.
“A few mosques have implemented physical distancing by arranging the praying rows, but people are not really obedient to wear masks … It is just a matter of time before we see local transmissions,” he said.
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In neighbouring province North Sumatra, which does not have special autonomy granted by the central government, the situation is not too different.
Local resident Ms Nurul Zahra, 23, said many mosques in her area Deli Serdang regency on the outskirt of provincial capital Medan are still holding mass prayers. There are even iftar feasts to break fast.
“The mosques are almost full usually here … But the congregants go straight home after the prayers, they don’t recite the Quran there.
“People here think they’re immune to COVID-19. They are not afraid,” Ms Zahra said.
Due to personal reasons, she has not been praying at the mosques recently, but her aunt and cousin have performed the mass prayers.
North Sumatra so far has over 110 COVID-19 cases among its population of 13 million people. There are no large-scale social restrictions in place.
SOME JAKARTA MOSQUES DEFY SOCIAL RESTRICTIONS
In Jakarta, the mosques have mostly been adhering to the large-scale social restrictions that kicked in on Apr 10 and not holding prayers. However, there are indications of people flouting the rules.
Last week, some teenagers were said to have become violent when an East Jakarta resident reported an evening Ramadan mass prayer to the governor via social media.
They destroyed the fence of the person’s home and threw firecrackers at his house. Their actions were filmed and the video became viral on social media.
The incident ended with the deletion of the social media post and the teenagers being advised by the local district head not to repeat their actions, local media reported.
READ: Ramadan takes on a quiet meaning this year, as COVID-19 restrictions disrupt rituals and gatherings in Indonesia
The Indonesian director of Amnesty International Usman Hamid told CNA that the mosque near his home in South Jakarta is still holding mass prayers.
Mr Hamid asserted that the government must act firmly in implementing its policies.
“The government can use a persuasive approach and educate the local heads.
“If they are doubtful in dealing with resistance (from the masses), then the government can use religious heads, traditional leaders, artists, public figures and those who have the influence to help the government to prohibit worships which involve crowds,” he noted.
RELIGION IS A SENSITIVE MATTER: HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER
In a press conference on Thursday, Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian said that managing religious affairs can be challenging.
“Anything related to religion is very sensitive. We have to be very careful in making policies related to religious affairs,” he noted.
The government prioritises persuasive approaches, rather than coercive measures when dealing with religious matters, he said, adding that such issues are managed in consultation with the main religious groups in the country.
“We are not banning religious activities but the problem is that any mass gathering or social gathering in a massive number is very dangerous because it is really a potential medium for the wide spreading of the virus.
"So informing, sharing, or educating people, in particular about religious gatherings, is not really easy.”
With 34 provinces and over 17,000 islands, Indonesia has a decentralised model of governance. Most affairs are the responsibility of the local governments, but they also need to follow the guidelines given by the central government.
Commenting on the situation in Aceh, the minister said that the local people there have very strong traditions of embracing religion. Using just coercive measures could be counter-productive, he said.
Mr Karnavian said even though Aceh is still a green zone, the province should be aware of the danger that the virus can spread exponentially.
“We have to explain, in particular to the religious figures in Aceh, the danger. And we work together with the heads of the local government.
“I’ve talked to the governor of Aceh, a number of regents and mayors in Aceh personally, informing them about the danger and how to approach the religious leaders. Because the role of religious leaders in Aceh is very, very strong.”
The former national police chief pointed out that if an area is a red zone or they view a mass gathering as really problematic, coercive measures would be taken.
When a Jama'at Tabligh event almost took place last month in Gowa, South Sulawesi, Mr Karnavian said he immediately talked to the local police chief and the governor.
“I said if there is no way, you have to take coercive measures now. I talked very strongly to the governor Mr Nurdin Abdullah and the chief of police … They dismissed (the gathering), after strongly debating with the religious leaders over there.”