Muslims worldwide begin celebrating Eid al-Fitr under Covid-19 restrictions

Photo: AFP Indonesians attend Eid al-Fitr prayers, marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and maintain social distancing amid concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak at a mosque in Bekasi, West Java on 24 May 2020.

Muslims around the world began marking a sombre Eid al-Fitr Sunday, many under coronavirus lockdown, but lax restrictions offer respite to worshippers in some countries despite fears of skyrocketing infections.

The festival, one of the most important in the Muslim calendar marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, is traditionally celebrated with mosque prayers, family feasts and shopping for new clothes, gifts and sweet treats. But this year, the celebration is overshadowed by the fast-spreading respiratory disease, with many countries tightening lockdown restrictions after a partial easing during Ramadan led to a sharp spike in infections.

Further dampening the festive spirit, multiple countries - from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Turkey and Syria - have banned mass prayer gatherings, a festival highlight, to limit the spread of the disease.

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, began a five-day, round-the-clock curfew from Saturday after infections more than quadrupled since the start of Ramadan to around 68,000 - the highest in the Gulf.

Eid prayers will be held at the two holy mosques in the cities of Mecca and Medina "without worshippers", authorities said on Saturday, citing a royal decree.

Mecca's Grand Mosque has been almost devoid of worshippers since March, with a stunning emptiness enveloping the sacred Kaaba -- a large cube-shaped structure towards which Muslims around the world pray. Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site, will reopen to worshippers only after Eid, its governing body said.

In Lebanon, the highest Sunni religious authority has announced the reopening of mosques only for Friday prayers. Worshippers, however, will be subject to temperature checks and sanitary controls before they enter.

Meanwhile, Muslims across Asia - from Indonesia to Pakistan, Malaysia and Afghanistan - thronged markets for pre-festival shopping, flouting coronavirus guidelines and sometimes even police attempts to disperse large crowds.

Pakistan, which gave into religious pressure by allowing mosque prayers throughout the fasting of Ramadan, is yet to make a decision over mass gatherings during Eid.

In Indonesia -- the world's most populous Muslim nation -- people are turning to smugglers and fake travel documents to get around bans on the annual end-of-Ramadan travel that could send infections soaring.

More than 3,500 Tunisians who travelled home just ahead of the holiday will have to spend it away from their families, forced to quarantine for two weeks in hotels after arriving from abroad.

The COVID-19 death tolls across the Middle East and Asia have been lower than in Europe and the United States, but numbers are rising steadily, sparking fears the virus may overwhelm often underfunded healthcare systems. Iran, which has experienced the Middle East's deadliest outbreak, has called on its citizens to avoid travel during Eid as it battles to control infection rates.

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