Mecca's Grand Mosque, empty of worshippers as Saudi Arabia sterilizes the site over fears of the new coronavirus. (Abdel Ghani Bashir/AFP via Getty Images)

Eid al-Fitr to Be Observed Under Corona Curfew

Despite the social aspects of Eid al-Fitr, which follows Ramadan, governments make the ‘hard’ decision to ban movement and minimize human contact

Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority have all decided to impose full curfews during the three days of Eid al-Fitr – the Festival of Breaking the Fast – which ends the holy month of Ramadan, amid fears of the further spread of COVID-19. This will have a significant impact on the holiday, given the centrality of its social aspects: congregational prayers and family gatherings.

In Saudi Arabia, the shutdown will be extended to five days. The Saudi Interior Ministry said in a May 12 statement that it was imposing a curfew throughout all regions of the kingdom from Saturday, May 23 to the end of the following Wednesday.

Khaled bin Ali Batarfi, a professor of social studies at Alfaisal University in Riyadh, told The Media Line that the curfew decision was expected, given that during Eid al-Fitr, families gather and go out in groups, “whether to visit markets, gardens, or to any other entertainment places, which usually are crowded with people, in contradiction to the precautionary measures taken during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Batarfi said that the Saudi authorities had to take the decision to protect citizens and save them from embarrassment, given that family visits are a main feature of Islamic holidays. “When there’s an official decision by the government, people feel obligated and commit to it. If such a thing were left without organization and planning, people would feel obligated to socialize. The decision saved face for people.”

He added that people have become accustomed to such decisions, despite the importance of congregational prayers and family gatherings during the festival, “especially here in Saudi Arabia, where Mecca is, and prayers are very important and holy. People are still showing acceptance because they understand it is for their own safety.”

Batarfi said that during this coming eid, markets will be empty, whereas normally they would be crowded starting a week before the holiday, “not to mention the activities on the days of the eid, itself, but the government’s decision was to protect its citizens.”

Istabraq Al-Hashem, a Saudi doctor based in Mecca, told The Media Line that she was sad when she first heard the news, as the decision will deprive her of participation in the expected, social, religious and family gatherings.

“I have not been shopping these days for gifts, clothes and holiday needs as I usually do every year, due to the absence of occasions this year,” Al-Hashem said, “but seeing social media discussions on how to perform eid prayers, in addition to other creative ideas on how to spend eid at home … with tolerance, I think it will be possible.”

She explained that since the government is going to bear the consequences of the decision, including economic losses, health and security responsibilities and services, “it’s imperative that we carry at least part of the burden personally.”

On May 10, Iraq decided to impose a comprehensive curfew during Eid al-Fitr, making it the first country in the region to take such a sensitive decision.

Taybeh Imad, a Baghdad-based lawyer, activist and mother, told The Media Line that the decision was extremely important, especially during eid time, as part of the Arab culture during holidays was to socialize, including visits and, necessarily, close human contact: “We like to kiss and hug our relatives.”

Thus, Imad said, the full curfew decision will actually cancel holiday events and activities. “This isn’t a political or security decision as much it is a medical decision to protect the people, especially given that the number of cases of viral infection is increasing in the region.”

She added that Mecca was closed earlier because of the pandemic, as well as mosques and churches in most countries. “Therefore, I believe this decision is right and needed.”

Imad said that she has prepared movies to watch and books to read with her family during the curfew, for entertainment purposes. “In the end, our safety is more important than anything.”

Bushra Al-Obaidi, a legal expert and member of a women’s advisory group to UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ representative in Iraq, told The Media Line that the government decision came late and that authorities should have imposed the curfew earlier, given the increase in COVID-19 cases, especially in the capital, Baghdad.

“The increase of coronavirus patients in Bagdad is scary and abnormal. The government was supposed to make a decision to prevent us from being in such a position. We have no capabilities whatsoever to counter the pandemic. Rather, we can avoid dealing with it by imposing early preventive measures on citizens, to protect them,” Al-Obaidi said.

She clarified that Islam prioritizes the protection of people’s lives. “Human well-being comes before Islamic laws. There’s no need to go to the mosque to pray if I know I’ll be in danger of being infected with such a disease, and of transferring it to others.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced on May 16 a full lockdown to prevent movement between governorates and villages in the West Bank during the festival because of the coronavirus crisis. From May 22 to the end of May 25, movement will be completely banned in all Palestinian cities, refugee camps and villages, except to pharmacies and bakeries.

Ghassan al-Nimer, the spokesperson for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, told The Media Line that in the last week, only one new case of coronavirus infection was recorded. The full curfew was important, he said, to keep the number of cases steady.

“In the governorates under PA rule, the situation is under control, but in our capital, Jerusalem, which we don’t control, cases are increasing. And we count the cases of our citizens in Jerusalem, which explains why the number of cases in the Palestinian territories is increasing,” al-Nimer clarified.

He explained that at some point, a Palestinian worker returning from Israel infected three villages, including his own. “Based on this experience and other ones, a curfew is a must – especially since we have about 30,000 workers returning to the West Bank on Friday.”

Al-Nimer explained that the PA won’t be able to test all workers to make sure they don’t have the virus, as they arrive shortly before the holiday and getting test results takes at least two days. “We had to decide on a full closure from Friday night to Monday night. People won’t be allowed to drive cars at all and if citizens need bread or medicine, they will have to walk” to a nearby bakery or pharmacy.

He stressed that the decision was very hard, but very important, as it relates to the safety of the Palestinian people.

Dina, a Palestinian women from Nablus who asked that her family name not be used, told The Media Line that eid this year will be completely different from what she has been used to since she was a child. “We always visit the village that we are originally from, and my dad prays at the mosque there. After that, we go to the city to visit my grandfather and other relatives.”

Dina said that as part of the holiday, families gather together for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and on the third day, her father and mother would take them to the beach or to do other activities. “Now we can’t do any of that, and I understand. But I think my father, alone, will try to visit his dad in the city.”

Saudi Arabia has more than 57,000 confirmed cases of infection with the novel coronavirus; Iraq has more than 3,400 COVID-19 cases; and the Palestinian Authority has 381 confirmed cases.

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