CAIRO — Muslims in several parts of the Middle East stayed at home on Sunday, the first day of the Eid al-Fitr festival, amid restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.
Eid al-Fitr, one of Islam’s two major festivals, follows the end of the Muslim lunar fasting month of Ramadan.
The three-day festival is traditionally marked by visits to family and friends and eating sweet specialties, while children usually receive new clothes and cash gifts.
But fears of the coronavirus outbreak and related restrictions have made such gatherings near impossible this year.
In Cairo, a city of around 10 million people, the usually traffic-clogged streets appeared virtually empty on Sunday, hours before the start of a 13-hour nationwide curfew due to the coronavirus.
Images posted on social media showed main roads in Cairo, nicknamed the “city that doesn’t sleep,” almost deserted with Eid revelers keeping indoors.
“This is the stay-at-home Eid,” Ahmed Mohammed, a lawyer, quipped. “It’s safer this Eid to congratulate relatives and friends on the phone in the hope that this affliction (the coronavirus) will be over soon,” he added.
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country of nearly 100 million people, was to enforce later Sunday a curfew from 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) to 6 a.m. for six consecutive days.
Public transport is halted, and entertainment places closed on those days to limit outdoor movement.
Similarly, Eid celebrations almost disappeared from the streets of the Tunisian capital Tunis, witnesses said.
Apart from bakeries that opened briefly on Sunday, all other stores closed down as streets were quiet, they added.
“The Eid is different this year,” Nazem Sadek, a vendor of children’s toys in Tunis, said. “Children have not shown up since the morning,” he told dpa.
Although Tunisia eased virus-related restrictions early this month, authorities have kept in place curbs on moving among the provinces of the North African country.
Mosques in Tunisia remained shuttered on Sunday, prompting worshippers to perform a special Eid prayer at home.
The Eid prayer is normally performed inside mosques or in open spaces early on the first day of the festival.
But this year, several Arab governments called on the Muslim faithful to perform the Eid prayer at home, in an effort to contain the spread of the pandemic.
Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s influential seat of learning, has thrown its weight behind home worshipping.
Last week, the Cairo-based institution issued a fatwa, or a binding ruling, urging the faithful to offer up the Eid prayer from home.
“This is permissible because the danger of the disease (COVID-19) is still there and the Eid prayer cannot be performed in mosques or outdoors,” al-Azhar said in a statement.
Several Arab countries have announced a complete or partial lockdown, and banned gatherings, during the Eid holiday in an attempt to stop the virus spread.
However, the Egyptian government allowed a state-run mosque in Cairo to reopen on Sunday just for the Eid prayers with the attendance of a handful of worshippers.
“We beseech God on the day of Eid and this day of joy to end this epidemic,” a cleric said in a sermon following the prayers, which were broadcast live on Egyptian state television.
“We yearn for praying inside mosques again,” he added.
Like many Muslim-majority countries in the region, Egypt has closed mosques since March as part of precautions to fight the virus.
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia, Islam’s birthplace, began a 24-hour nationwide curfew that remains in force until Wednesday.
Saudi King Salman late Saturday urged people to spend Eid at home and replace traditional face-to-face greetings with online contact.
“Safety dictates the whole society understand these special circumstances that prevent Muslims from going out to perform the Eid prayers and exchange visits,” he said, according to the official Saudi news agency SPA.
The Gulf monarchy on Sunday confirmed 2,399 new coronavirus cases and 11 more deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, SPA reported, citing a health spokesman.
Saudi Arabia has the Arab world’s highest coronavirus infection tally with 72,560 cases resulting in 390 deaths so far.
Kuwait, another Gulf country, is already enforcing a round-the-clock curfew until May 30.
During the three-week lockdown, people are allowed to go out briefly to buy food and medicine as well as to exercise.
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