Muslims mark Eid al-Adha holiday in pandemic’s shadow

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Muslims offer prayers during the first day of Eid al-Adha, outside the iconic Haghia Sophia in the historic Sultan Ahmed district of Istanbul, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Thousands of Muslims attended dawn Eid al-Adha prayers in Istanbul. (AP Photo/Mucahid Yapici)

CAIRO (AP) — Muslims around the world were observing Tuesday yet another major Islamic holiday in the shadow of the pandemic and amid growing concerns about the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus.

Eid al-Adha, or the “Feast of Sacrifice,” is typically marked by communal prayers, large social gatherings, slaughtering of livestock and giving meat to the needy. This year, the holiday comes as many countries battle the delta variant first identified in India, prompting some to impose new restrictions or appeal for people to avoid congregating and follow safety protocols.

The pandemic has already taken a toll for the second year on a sacred mainstay of Islam, the hajj, whose last days coincide with Eid al-Adha. Once drawing some 2.5 million Muslims from across the globe to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the pilgrimage has been dramatically scaled back due to the virus.

This year’s hajj has been limited to 60,000 vaccinated Saudi citizens or residents of Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, pilgrims wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, performed the symbolic stoning of the devil in the valley area of Mina — using sterilized pebbles they received ahead of time.

“This is (a) very, very, very big moment for us, for me especially,” said pilgrim Arya Widyawan Yanto, an Indonesian living in Saudi Arabia. He added that he was happy he had the chance to perform the pilgrimage. “Everything was conducted under very strict precautions.”

Yanto said he hoped for the pandemic to end and for all Muslims to be able to perform the pilgrimage in a safe way.

Indonesiamarked a grim Eid al-Adhaamid a devastating new wave of coronavirus cases in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, also an influential Islamic cleric, appealed to people to perform holiday prayers at home with their families.

“Don’t do crowds,” Amin said in televised remarks ahead of the start of the holiday. “Protecting oneself from the COVID-19 pandemic is obligatory.”

The surge is believed to have been fueled by travel during another holiday — the Eid al-Fitr festival in May — and by the rapid spread of the delta variant.

In Malaysia, measures have been tightened after a sharp spike in infections despite a national lockdown since June 1 — people are banned from travelling back to their hometowns or crossing districts to celebrate. House visits and customary trips to graveyards are also banned.

Healthy worshippers are allowed to gather for prayers in mosques, with strict social distancing and no physical contact. Ritual animal sacrifice is limited to mosques and other approved areas.

Health Director-General Noor Hisham Abdullah has urged Malaysians not to “repeat irresponsible behavior,” adding that travel and celebrations during Eid al-Fitr and another festival on the island of Borneo led to new clusters of cases.

“Let us not in the excitement of celebrating the Feast of Sacrifice cause us all to perish because of COVID-19,” he said in a statement.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin urged Muslims to stay home. “I appeal to you all to be patient and abide by the rules because your sacrifice is a great jihad in Allah’s sight and in our effort to save lives,” he said in a televised speech on the eve of the festival.

The World Health Organization has reportedthat globally, COVID-19 deaths had climbed after a period of decline. The reversal has been attributed to low vaccination rates, relaxed mask rules and other precautions, and the delta variant.

Lockdowns will severely curtail Eid al-Adha festivities in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s two largest cities.

Sydney resident Jihad Dib, a New South Wales state government lawmaker, said the city’s Muslims were sad but understood why they would be confined to their homes with no visitors allowed.

“It’s going to be the first Eid in my life I don’t hug and kiss my mum and dad,” Dib told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Iran on Monday imposed a week-long lockdown on the capital, Tehran, and the surrounding region as the country struggles with another surge in the coronavirus pandemic, state media reported. The lockdown begins on Tuesday.

Not everyone is imposing new restrictions. In Bangladesh, authorities have allowed an eight-day pause in the country’s strict lockdown for the holiday that health experts say could be dangerous.

In Egypt, Essam Shaban travelled to the southern province of Sohag to spend Eid al-Adha with his family. He said ahead of the start of the holiday that he planned to pray at a mosque there on Tuesday while taking precautions such as bringing his own prayer rug and wearing a mask.

“We want this Eid to pass by peacefully without any infections,” he said. “We must follow instructions.”

Shaban had been looking forward to pitching in with his brothers to buy a buffalo for slaughtering, going door-to-door to give some of the meat to the poor and to the traditional festive meal later in the day with his extended family.

“It’s usually boisterous with laughter and bickering with the kids,” he said. “It’s great.”

But others will be without loved ones.

In India, where Eid al-Adha starts Wednesday, Tahir Qureshi would always go with his father for prayers and then to visit family and friends. His father died in June after contracting the virus during a surge that devastated the country, and the thought of having to spend the holiday without him is heartbreaking.

“It will be difficult without him,” he said.

India’s Muslim scholars have been urging people to exercise restraint and adhere to health protocols. Some states have restricted large gatherings and are asking people to observe the holiday at home.

Meanwhile the pandemic’s economic fallout, which threw millions of Indians into financial hardship, has many saying they cannot afford to buy sacrificial livestock.

In Indian-controlled Kashmir, a disputed, Muslim-majority region, businessman Ghulam Hassan Wani is among those cutting back.

“I used to sacrifice three or four sheep, but this year we can hardly afford one,” Wani said.

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Nabil reported from Mina, Saudi Arabia. Associated Press writers from around the world contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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