Muslims in Indonesia divided over Friday prayers amid coronavirus fears

DEPOK, Indonesia (Reuters) - While many Muslims in Indonesia’s capital accepted advice to avoid religious gatherings and prayed at home on Friday elsewhere in the world’s most populous Muslim country, people ignored the risk of coronavirus and crowded into their mosques.

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A religious gathering in Malaysia late last month attended by some 16,000 people generated about 670 coronavirus cases across the region, including 576 in Malaysia, 61 in Brunei and 22 in Cambodia. At least 13 Indonesians were also infected.

Indonesia has reported 309 cases in all but the figure is rising and medical experts warn the number of infections is likely to be higher. Twenty-five people have died in Indonesia.

But some Muslims trusted in their faith to keep them safe.

“Allah is protecting those who abide by their obligations,” said Aswin Jusar, 76, in the town of Depok, south of Jakarta, as he prepared to attend Friday prayers as usual despite a call from the mayor for religious activities to be suspended.

Depok has recorded several coronavirus cases and Yunizar, 65, the caretaker of the mosque, said while he was worried, he decided to go ahead with prayers anyway. The mosque had some extra cleaning and more soap was provided, he said.

In the teeming capital of Jakarta, the governor has suspended all religious activities for two weeks while President Joko Widodo has spoken of a “need to evaluate religious events that involve many people”.

At Southeast Asia’s biggest mosque, the Istiqlal in Jakarta, Friday prayers were off. Its imam, Nasaruddin Umar, cited an edict from the Indonesian Council of Ulama stressing the need for social distancing.

“There’s enough of a reason to avoid such religious gatherings,” Umar told a news conference.

A rally of Muslim pilgrims in South Sulawesi province was cancelled on Thursday, but only after thousands had already attended.

At a mosque in Tangerang, west of Jakarta, one worshipper said he was worried about the virus but still went out for Friday prayers because authorities had not imposed a ban.

“I hope Allah still protects me. I brought my own mat,” the man, who identified himself as Achmad, told Reuters.

“I don’t know if we’ll stand close to each other or not, it’s quite crowded here.”

In Malaysia, still reeling for the explosion of cases at the recent religious gathering, weekly prayers were called off.

“When we mention Friday prayers, please abide by the instructions,” Minister of Religious Affairs Zulkifli Mohd Al-Bakri said on Thursday.

It was vital to break chains of coronavirus infections and people should pray at home with their families, he said.

Reporting by Wilda Asmarini, Yuddy Cahya and Stanley Widianto in Jakarta and Joseph Sipalan in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Ed Davies, Robert Birsel