Call to prayer draws crowds in Covid-wracked Indonesia

Jakarta (AFP) –


Mosques were jammed across virus-wracked Indonesia on Friday despite warnings against mass gatherings as the daily death toll in the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation soared to a record high.

Skyrocketing Covid-19 infections and deaths are hammering hospitals in the Southeast Asian country of nearly 270 million, which is overtaking India as Asia's coronavirus epicentre.

Fearing a further explosion in transmission, the government and Indonesian Mosque Council have called on millions of the faithful to pray at home as deaths hit 1,205 over the past 24 hours, with 54,000 new cases.

But the call to prayer on Friday, Islam's holiest day, was too strong for many, including Jakarta-area resident M. Rofid Hilmi, 25, who lost his aunt to the respiratory illness.

"I'm actually worried but I will leave it up to God to protect me. Hopefully everything will be fine," said a masked Hilmi, who himself was recovering from the virus.

"I don't want to skip my religious duty," he added.

There were reports of rampant safety violations, including unmasked children and devotees praying inches apart.

The rush to Indonesia's myriad mosques -- estimated at about 750,000 nationwide -- may have been exacerbated by the government reversing its recent decision to shutter them as well as churches and holiday island Bali's Hindu temples.

The restrictions were part of tighter curbs that closed shopping malls, restaurants and offices in the hard-hit capital Jakarta, densely populated Java and Bali.

But the regulations were quickly changed to stipulate that while faith houses could stay open, the public should not attend prayers as the highly infectious Delta variant rips across the archipelago.

"So this was probably understood by many that because they're not closed, mosques were open for prayer," said Imam Addaruquthni, secretary general of the Indonesian Mosque Council.

- 'Too little, too late' -

The council has deployed teams to encourage people to stay home, but it is a touchy subject.

"It is very hard to prevent people from going to the mosque," Addaruquthni said.

"But praying at home will save lives and the pandemic has already killed so many."

Friday's crowds likely owed much to a mix of strong feelings about faith, confusing government messages and calls from some religious leaders to ignore warnings about mass gatherings, he added.

This month, a local office of the Indonesian Ulema Council, which has millions of Muslim members, advised West Sumatra residents to ignore stay-at-home warnings.

"Some see compliance with religion as far more important than following what people say," Addaruquthni said.

"Others also believe that death is in the hands of God, so if someone dies then that is his or her destiny.

"They just don't understand that saving lives is far more important than anything else."

Pandemic fatigue and online hoaxes about the virus were also fanning doubts about the dangers of public gatherings, one expert said.

"Many chose to believe the wrong people instead of experts," said Muhammad Najib Azca, a sociologist at Indonesia's Gadjah Mada University.

"Indonesians are not only religious, but they can also be paternalistic -- we listen to community and religious leaders.

"The government has been involving more and more religious leaders to spread (correct) information but it's too little too late," he added.

Indonesia's virus cases shot up after millions travelled across the country at the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in May.

Now, authorities are worried about big gatherings to mark next week's Eid-al-Adha -- an annual Muslim celebration known as the Feast of Sacrifice -- over fears it could spark another surge in cases.

For Yusuf Bachtiar, whose neighbour died from the virus, risks are around every corner.

"When it comes to prayer, each of us has our own beliefs," he said from a mosque in Bekasi on the edge of Jakarta.

"It's not just Friday prayers -- there are lots of other activities that spread the virus."