CAIRO–Muslims across the world celebrated Eid al-Fitr with masks and prayers, as conflicts and coronavirus restrictions cast shadows over the festival’s mass gatherings and family reunions.
Many COVID-hit countries, including Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia imposed curbs, shut shops and even some mosques, though the numbers out praying were higher than in 2020 when lockdowns all but cancelled events.
In Tunisia, a sombre mood prevailed as the country’s eleven million population struggled with a lockdown that hindered inter-regional travel, social gatherings as well as commercial activity.
In the country, which is is currently reporting the highest number of new pandemic-related deaths per capita in Africa, the public is frustrated and some small business owners and market traders had defied the lockdown at the end of Ramadan.
The only ray of hope came with the news that the president of the republic, the head of government and speaker of parliament, who hardly speak to each other, exchanged Eid greetings.
Despite its many crises, the North African country has remained mired in a political deadlock preventing new members of the government being sworn in and a constitutional court being set up.
The mood was no better in Indonesia. “(We are) very lucky that we can pray together this year, when we couldn’t do it last year,” said Tri Haryati Ningsih, 53, at the Dian Al-Mahri mosque in the Indonesian city of Depok, south of the capital Jakarta.
“Hopefully, the coronavirus will pass quickly and we can always worship together,” she added.
In a typical year, unlike this one, millions would travel to their hometowns to celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan with their families and crowd into markets and malls sharing greetings and sweets.
In Depok, the faithful wore masks as they arrived and sanitised their hands before going in.
At the entrance, a poster outlining six steps recommended by the World Health Organisation to prevent the spread of COVID-19 served as a reminder of the danger.
Egyptians marked the holiday with group prayers outside, after the government imposed new restrictions on public gatherings. Hundreds prayed shoulder-to-shoulder in the courtyard of an historic Cairo mosque, almost all wearing masks. Group prayers were banned last year due to the pandemic.
“It is a feeling of happiness that we are missing,” said Ahmed Saeed, one worshipper. “We hope corona ends and we always gather together.”
The Egyptian government is trying to minimise a third wave of infections, with daily reported new cases surpassing 1,000 in the past two weeks.
Last week, it ordered a 9 pm curfew for restaurants, shops, cafes and social clubs and closed the country’s public beaches and parks for the duration of the Eid.
Believers in Turkey were able to attend communal prayers in mosques, however. Hundreds prayed in Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia, the sixth-century Byzantine cathedral which was reconverted into a mosque last summer.
At the end of April, the Turkish government imposed its strictest lockdown yet, until May 17, ordering people to stay home, but mosques have been open, citing strict adherence to rules to fight infections.
Indonesians and Malaysians were banned for a second year from travelling to visit relatives in the traditional Eid homecoming.
“I understand that we all miss our relatives at times like this, especially in the momentum of Eid,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in televised remarks. “But let’s prioritise safety together by not going back to our hometowns.”
In Bangladesh, however, tens of thousands of people were leaving the capital, Dhaka, to join their families back in their villages for Eid celebrations despite a nationwide lockdown and road checkpoints. Experts fear a surge in cases in a country grappling with a shortage of vaccines and fear of Indian variants of the coronavirus spreading.
Shadow of conflict
Many Muslims also marked Eid under the shadow of conflict, past and present.
In Gaza the usual excitement of Eid turned to mourning for some after a heavy night of Israeli air strikes during the fiercest flare-up in years. Medics have put the death toll in the enclave at 83 so far this week.
“Every year, we would dress up and make visits. This year we will not go anywhere,” said 20-year-old Basma Al-Farra in Khan Younis refugee camp.
Rockets and missiles in dizzying numbers have been exchanged since Monday between Hamas militants in Gaza and Israel’s military across the enclave’s boundary, after the latest tensions related to land ownership in Jerusalem erupted into conflict.
Hamas, the Islamic militant group ruling Gaza, urged the faithful to mark communal prayers inside their homes or the nearest mosques and avoid being out in the open.
“It is all airstrikes, destruction and devastation,” said Hassan Abu Shaaban, who tried to lighten the mood by passing out chocolates to passersby.
Echoing a sombre mood in much of the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud voiced scathing criticism of Israel in a phone call Wednesday with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on the occasion of Eid.
The king “stressed Saudi Arabia’s strong condemnation of the Israeli measures in Jerusalem and the acts of violence carried out by Israel… (and) affirmed that the kingdom stands by the Palestinian people,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban declared a three-day ceasefire for Eid just days after a bombing that killed 80 people, most of them schoolgirls.
Some children in Kabul enjoyed the festival at an amusement park, shrieking with delight as they rode carousels and high-flying swings.
“Afghanistan is unfortunately involved in war and insecurity, but the people are delighted with this three-day ceasefire,” said Noorulah Stanikzai, a young resident of Kabul relaxing at the park with his friends.
In the Iraqi city of Mosul, which was badly damaged in the long war between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State militant group that ended in 2017, worshippers gathered in the historic but largely ruined 7th century al-Masfi mosque.
Eid prayers were held there for the first time since parts of it were reduced to rubble. The prayers were instigated by a local group of volunteers to help amplify their calls for the Old City to be rebuilt.
“We are happy about Eid and other celebrations, but there is also heartbreak because of great destruction in Mosul until this day,” said Ayyub Dhanun, one of the volunteers.
“This is an invitation to rebuild this monument and to compensate Mosul residents by rebuilding their houses in old Mosul.”