BANDA ACEH – Hundreds of people join the Ramadan evening prayers at Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in the capital of Indonesia's far western Aceh province.
They wash their hands to prevent the spread of the coronavirus before they perform ablutions and begin their prayers. They come with masks, following a government appeal, but don't always wear them. Some worshipers bring their own prayer rugs after the carpets at the mosque were rolled up in March.
One congregant, Umar, decided to join a mass prayer at the mosque and wore a mask to make sure he did the right thing as suggested by the government. “I feel not complete if I do the prayer not at the mosque,” Umar said.
The scene stands in sharp contrast to past Ramadans. The mosque in Banda Aceh can accommodate thousands, and people flooded outside the mosque building in past years. This year, not more than 400 worshipers have participated at the evening prayer. They were not packed together, but were not social distancing either.
Indonesia's Religious Affairs Ministry has issued guidance for people to worship from home, alongside government recommendations for working and learning from home. The Indonesia Ulema Council also previously issued a fatwa advising against congregational prayers in areas where COVID-19 had spread uncontrollably.
Indonesia’s coronavirus outbreak has been most intense in and around the densely populated capital, Jakarta. It has recorded 4,002 cases with 370 deaths from the total 9,511 cases and 773 deaths across the country. The central government reported nine COVID-19 cases in Aceh with one death as of Tuesday.
Aceh is the only province in the world’s most populous Muslim nation that practices Shariah law. The region's autonomy was a concession the central government made in 2001 as part of efforts to end a decades-long war for independence.
The Aceh Ulema Council has allowed daily mass prayers as long as they follow previously announced health protocols, such as wearing masks and bringing their own prayer rugs. Some preachers are shortening sermons so worshipers won't stay long in a crowd, and some Aceh mosques are not allowing mass prayers, following the central government's guidance.
The Aceh council’s deputy chairman Faisal Ali said the council only allowed congregational prayers in certain areas. “For people who live in areas where the epidemic of COVID-19 is still under control, they can do the prayers that are held at mosques by limiting the duration,” Ali said. ___
Associated Press writer Edna Tarigan in Jakarta contributed to this report.