Muslims in Israel and the Palestinian territories were preparing Thursday to begin the holy month of Ramadan without visits to mosques or festive communal meals as the Islamic world struggle to balance the demands of religion with public safety in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, Israel’s government approved emergency measures placing nighttime curfews on Muslim-majority towns and in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority officials said mosques would remain shuttered and called on people to avoid getting together for the holiday.
With traditional, communal meals for the poor, large fast-breaking dinners with family and friends called iftars, and cultural events after sunset canceled, the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims find themselves cut off from much of what makes the month special as authorities fight the pandemic.
Muslims traditionally refrain from eating and drinking during the day during Ramadan, only breaking their fasts after sundown.
The holy month is set to begin Thursday night with the new moon.
In a pre-Ramadan speech Wednesday, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said collective meals would be banned and people would be asked to continue remaining at home as much as possible, days after the government in Ramallah began to roll back some lockdown measures in place for over a month.
He also said mosques and other houses of worship would remain closed, in line with international health recommendations.
Last week, official PA news site Wafa reported that supreme sharia judge Mahmoud al-Habash had ruled that Palestinians can recite the special Taraweeh prayers at home.
PA-appointed grand mufti of Jerusalem Muhammad Ahmad Hussein explained that the restrictions on mosque attendance were instituted in order to comply with guidance on public gatherings from the World Health Organization, The Jordan Times reported.
This decision came after the Jordanian-controlled Waqf, the Islamic endowment which administers the Temple Mount’s Al-Aqsa mosque, announced that it would close the Jerusalem holy site for Ramadan.
According to Al Jazeera, the body explained that its “painful” decision was taken “in line with legal fatwas and medical advice” and likewise called on Palestinians to “perform prayers in their homes during the month of Ramadan, to preserve their safety.”
There have been 480 confirmed coronavirus cases among Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, including six new cases confirmed Thursday, Palestinian Health Minister Mai Alkaila said.
Since the start of the crisis, two West Bank Palestinians have died as well as two East Jerusalem Palestinians, according to Alkaila.
She said 75 percent of the cases had been traced to workers who spent time in Israel.
In Israel, all stores in towns with majority Muslim populations, aside from pharmacies, will be closed to the public from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. to discourage people from congregating during the holy month.
A general lockdown will also be in place nationwide from April 28 to April 29 as the country marks Independence Day.
The coronavirus has infected more than 2.6 million people and killed about 183,000, including more than 45,000 in the United States, according to a tally compiled by John Hopkins University from official government figures.
The true numbers are undoubtedly far higher, since testing is limited and counting methods vary. Most people infected suffer from only mild or moderate symptoms and survive.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Muslims Wednesday to “focus on our common enemy — the virus,” and repeated an earlier appeal for an immediate ceasefire for all conflicts.
In a separate message, he urged countries to provide equitable help to all, saying the pandemic was “a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.”
Authorities in the capital of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation, extended to May 22 strict disease-fighting restrictions with the approach of Ramadan.
In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan bowed to the country’s religious clerics, refusing to close mosques despite an appeal from the Pakistan Medical Association warning such gatherings are like a petri dish for the spread of the virus in a country that has a fragile health care system.