DUBAI – A Saudi official said Tuesday that the hajj pilgrimage, which usually draws up to 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world, will only see at the most a few thousand pilgrims next month due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
The kingdom’s Hajj Minister Muhammad Benten said a “small and very limited” number of people — even as low as just 1,000 from inside the kingdom — will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage to ensure social distancing and crowd control amid the global virus outbreak.
“The number, God willing, may be in the thousands. We are in the process of reviewing so it could be 1,000 or less, or a little more,” Benten said in a virtual press conference.
While the decision to drastically curb this year’s hajj was largely expected, it remains unprecedented in Saudi Arabia’s nearly 90-year history and effectively bars all Muslims from outside the kingdom from travelling there to performing the pilgrimage.
The Saudi government waited until just five weeks before the hajj to announce its decision. The timing indicates the sensitivity around major decisions concerning the hajj that affect Muslims around the world.
“This is a very sensitive operation and we are working with experts at the Health Ministry,” Benten said, stressing the importance of protecting the lives and health of pilgrims.
Muslim communities in the UK have been hard hit, but during Ramadan, the principle of zakat is a source of strength.
Behind the coronavirus death toll numbers are individual stories of trauma and tragedy for family members and friends.
Among the deceased in the United Kingdom are staff members of the National Health Service (NHS) who have succumbed to the virus.
The fact that they died from the very disease from which they were trying to save others is particularly poignant. Many of the doctors who have been killed by the virus in the UK were experienced medics with decades of service behind them. And many of them were Muslims.
This is an example of the disproportionate effect that the pandemic has had on Muslims. Although Muslims are not synonymous with an ethnic minority, many Muslims are from backgrounds that have been shown to be more vulnerable than others to the virus.
For example, British Muslims are over-represented in the medical field.
But even beyond the NHS, coronavirus seems to have hit the Muslim community in the UK particularly hard. One of the country’s youngest victims, Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, died at the age of 13 with no family members allowed to be present in his final moments.
The numbers appear mind-numbing. More than 100,000 deaths in the United States alone.
Nearly 350,000 worldwide.
A local group aims to find a way to bring those statistics to a more personal level and take a moment to ache for all who have died from COVID-19 in the pandemic.
The four-member Columbus Interfaith, plus four other local houses of worship, will join in hearts to remember and honor the world’s COVID-19 victims in a virtual service via Zoom to be posted online Sunday.
Muslims have just celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. The month of fasting, which is demanding in itself, has been even harder this year with the current social distancing requirements. Usually the high point of each day would be gathering with family and friends to break the fast with the evening meal, known as iftar. This year these customary gatherings have not been possible in the same way as in other years, for Muslims across the world.
Religion and risk of infection
Places of worship, like other spaces where large numbers of people gather, were affected early on by the Covid-19 pandemic, and in some cases were early hotspots for spreading infection. A synagogue in New York, a church in the Philippines, and a mass religious gathering in Pakistan were all hotspots for spreading Covid-19 infection in early 2020.
In Norway, mosques were quick to shut their doors and take on an important role in efforts to stop the spread of infection by providing information and advice. Through their networks, mosques have reached out to people who were not easily reachable through the authorities’ established channels. Like for other religious leaders, the decision to ask the faithful to stay at home, away from mosques, has been difficult. In times of crisis, religious beliefs and rituals are important to many people. But the situation has demanded the opposite; not to gather, not to stand close together.
As we mark the death of 100,000 people in the U.S. from COVID-19, an unprecedented group of 100+ national faith leaders—from Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions representing major denominations, national faith-based organizations, local congregations, and millions of people of faith across the country—call for a National Day of Mourning and Lament. Together, they look to federal, state, and local elected officials to observe Monday, June 1 as National Day of Mourning and Lament, a day marked by moments of silence, lowering of flags, interfaith vigils, ringing of bells, and civic memorials.
This call is being supported by the U.S. Conference of Mayors who represent over 1,400 mayors across the country. Mayors lead on the frontline of the COVID-19 response effort and continue to model critical local leadership amid this difficult time.
Together, interfaith leaders and mayors across the nation will call us to mourn, lament, and honor the dead, acknowledge the unequal nature of our suffering, pray together for the healing of the nation, and recommit to the difficult work ahead.
“I encourage Episcopalians to join with other people of faith this weekend to grieve and honor those who have died from COVID-19,” said Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. “Let this tragic moment not pass without us honoring the many among us who have lost their lives or lost their loved ones and commending them and ourselves to God’s love and peace.”
On a Sunday morning in April, the rising sun casts shadows over St Dominic’s Catholic Church in Yaba, a lively neighbourhood in the biggest city in the most populous country in Africa. The street leading to the church on the Lagos mainland holds an unusual serenity. Just over a month ago, it would have been filled with the tables of sellers of sacramental objects, their faces bowed downwards in the holy way of prayer, with rosaries tangled between their fingers.
On this day, however, the church – which usually hosts as many as 10,000 worshippers every Sunday – is empty. The congregation now prays at home, either following the service online or on the radio.
In a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus, on 30 March, Lagos, neighbouring Ogun State and the capital city of Abuja imposed a five-week lockdown, during which all gatherings – religious included – with more than 20 attendees were banned. Churches and mosques had to adapt quickly, and Nigeria’s Muslim worshippers were the first to respond with the National Mosque in Abuja closing its doors on 19 March. For the first time in living memory, the mosque was silent and empty during Ramadan, which ended on 23 May. The silence is particularly notable on Fridays when the area surrounding the mosque would have been buzzing with worshippers lining up to fill the 25,000-person-capacity prayer arena during the hours of Salat al-Jumu’ah (Friday prayers).
The vibrant collection of people celebrating the day after Eid al-Fitr at the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts had to change because of the coronavirus.
This year, the mosque decided to provide food to hundreds of community members in need as the country remains in the midst of the unprecedented pandemic.
Eid al-Fitr begins on the evening of Saturday May 23 is an Islamic holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting and deep reflection. Translated from Arabic as “the feast of the breaking of the fast”, Muslims observe the religious holiday by taking part in traditions such as holding prayer services and donating money to charity.
“We would have had a large congregational prayer at a park with probably two to three thousand people,” said Mohammed Dastigir, president of the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts.
Dastigir told MassLive that usually the mosque would rent space in Stanley Park in Westfield or use one of the football fields at the high school.
“We usually work with the mayor (West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt) and we rent out the high school, which we obviously couldn’t do that this year. In our parking lot there’s tents and a bunch of food, like a buffet,” Dastigir said.
The advent of the Coronavirus has compelled our three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — to rethink how to maintain our ability to come together to express our beliefs and practice our religious rituals. Through the use of online technologies and social media platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, Instagram and YouTube, millions of home-bound American Jews, Christians and Muslims have been able to take part, despite the lockdown, in religious services, study sessions and celebrations of sacred and uplifting holidays — Passover,Easter and Ramadan.
Are these changes going to be temporary inconveniences or a new way for our faithful to participate?
Clearly, online religious services and celebrations will continue as a central component of our repertoire at least until a foolproof COVID-19 vaccine is made widely available. Yet it is no secret that our faithful are hungering for a rapid return to in-person services where they can experience and share their faith in ways hard to replicate on Zoom. We all want to accomplish that — the question is how to do so safely and responsibly.
Faith communities around the world are leveraging tools like Zoom, Facebook Live and WhatsApp to tune in to services.
Though it’s typically a community affair, my family and I quietly welcomed Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, alone in our living room as the sun set on April 23. Instead of hearing an imam make the call to prayer, ushering in 30 days of heightened spiritual reflection, we listened as the call came in through a prayer app on our phones.
So began our journey of avoiding all food and drink, including water, during the daytime, and focusing on boosting our relationship with God through prayer and reflection.
Ramadan is different this year.
Shelter-in-place means worshipping at the mosque is out. So is inviting friends over for “iftar,” the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast. A holiday meant to bring the community together is being observed apart.
But not alone. Throughout Ramadan, Muslim religious leaders have used Instagram Live and Facebook to deliver lectures and conduct Q&As. Community centers, as well as friends, host virtual iftars on Zoom, where people share their experiences and offer religious reflections as they break the fast. Fundraisers for mosques and charities, which usually take place during the nightly communal prayers, have gone completely digital.
As the COVID-19 pandemic upends life, technology has kept communities of faith connected. Christians celebrated Easter by attending virtual services on Zoom and Facebook Live. Jews around the world attended virtual seders for Passover. Muslims have adopted the same technologies to celebrate Ramadan, which ends May 23.
A global day of prayer on May 14 reflected an upsurge of prayer as a healing response to the coronavirus.
By the Monitor’s Editorial Board
Of all the responses to the coronavirus, one of the most overlooked by journalists and national leaders has been prayer. Yet take note: On May 14, tens of thousands of Christians, Muslims, and Jews around the world held a day of prayer for healing. It was sponsored by a newly formed interfaith group called the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity.
“Let us face this challenge with patience and composure,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo at a mass prayer service in his Asian nation on Thursday. “Panic is half of the disease, equanimity is half of a cure, and patience determines recovery.”
Or note a day of prayer held in Israel April 22. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze religious leaders gathered online to lead people in their respective prayers. Or note a day of interfaith prayer in the Philippines April 8 to address the virus crisis.
In the United States, the National Day of Prayer, held every year on the first Thursday in May, focused this year on helping Americans cope with COVID-19. At the local level, interfaith groups have also held days of prayer – on Facebook, Zoom, or similar online platforms.
During the COVID-19 emergency, “Americans have become significantly more likely to say that religion is increasing its influence on American life,” according to the results of a mid-April Gallup Poll. A March survey by Pew Research Center found 24% of Americans say their faith has become stronger while 55% said they had prayed for an end to the spread of the coronavirus.