Middle East braces for dark Ramadan as viral threat continues

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Riyadh (AFP)

From iftar celebrations canceled to prayers hanging in mosques, Muslims in the Middle East are preparing for a dark month of Ramadan fasting as the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Ramadan is a time of both self-reflection and socialization. Believers fast from dawn to dusk, then gather for a family or community meal each evening of the holiest month in Islam, which begins later this week and ends with the Eid al festivities. -Fitr.

But this year, the new fast-spreading coronavirus threatens to slow down Ramadan like never before, with millions of people stranded across the Middle East – from Saudi Arabia and Lebanon to the battlefields of Libya, l ‘Iraq and Yemen.

More disheartening for many devout Muslims is that congregational worship – including Taraweeh night prayers – is banned in mosques in the area, many closed for the purpose of slowing the spread of the virus.

Religious authorities in several countries, including Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh of Saudi Arabia, have decided that prayers during Ramadan and Eid should be performed at home.

“Our hearts are crying,” said Ali Mulla, the muezzin of the Great Mosque in Mecca.

“We are used to seeing the holy mosque crowded with people during the day, at night, all the time … I feel deep pain inside. “

In recent weeks, an astonishing void has enveloped the sacred Kaaba – a large black cube structure draped in cloth embroidered with gold in the Great Mosque to which Muslims around the world pray.

The white-tiled area around the Kaaba is usually filled with tens of thousands of pilgrims.

Ramadan is considered to be a good time to make the year-long Umrah pilgrimage, which Saudi authorities suspended last month.

It is likely that the largest hajj pilgrimage, scheduled for late July, will also be canceled for the first time in modern history after Saudi Arabia urged Muslims to temporarily delay preparations.

– “No parties, no visits” –

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories, Muhammad Hussein, announced similar prayer restrictions during Ramadan, but advised against public viewing of the crescent moon, which is used to estimate the start of the holy month.

These restrictions are in line with recommendations from the World Health Organization, which urged countries to “prevent large numbers of people from gathering in places associated with Ramadan activities, such as places of entertainment, markets and The stores “.

The restrictions hit businesses hard, including retailers responding to the typical rush of Ramadan buyers.

This year, many Muslims have reallocated their Ramadan purchasing budget to stock up on COVID-19 masks, gloves and other protective gear.

“I had saved an amount to spend on Ramadan races, but instead spent it on items needed for quarantine and virus protection,” said Younes, 51, who works in a clothing store in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

“This year, no parties, no visits … I feel that we are besieged by the virus wherever we go. “

Iran hit with sanctions last week allowed some closed Tehran businesses to reopen, although it is one of the most affected countries in the Middle East, as many citizens face a bitter choice between the risk of infection and economic hardship.

Official statistics show that the disease has killed more than 5,000 people and infected more than 80,000 in Iran, but the actual numbers are believed to be higher.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iranians to pray at home during Ramadan, urging them to “not neglect worship, invocation and humility in our solitude.”

There is however a certain lightness in Cairo, where the narrow alleys of the Egyptian capital and the markets of the city center are still covered with traditional Ramadan decorations and brightly colored lanterns called fawanees.

These decorations also usually decorate restaurants and cafes, but they are all closed due to the epidemic, giving the city a more subdued atmosphere as the holy month approaches.

– Prayers and charity –

Hardline supporters across the region have rejected some Muslims’ online suggestions that they should be exempt from fasting this year due to the pandemic, insisting that even if social distancing is necessary, the virus does not did not prevent them from observing Ramadan rules from home.

“No studies on fasting and the risk of COVID-19 infection have been performed,” said WHO in its list of recommendations.

“Healthy people should be able to fast during Ramadan as in previous years, while COVID-19 patients may consider religious licenses for breaking the fast in consultation with their doctors, as they would any other illness.” “

For many trapped in their homes in war-torn countries like Libya, Ramadan is always a time of prayer, introspection and charity.

“For me, Ramadan arrived early this year. During those curfews, it means fewer hours of work, like Ramadan, “said Karima Munir, a 54-year-old banker and mother of two in Libya.

“Ramadan is still a charity and this year, the needy are numerous, especially with the (displacement) of the war. “

strawberries-ac / dm / sls / sw / amj

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