Indonesia: Police Scramble to Stop Religious Zealots from Holding Thousands-Strong Meetings

A woman wears a face mask at a public space in Banda Aceh on March 14, 2020. - As of March 13, there were over 140,000 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 illness in 124 countries, with more than 5,000 deaths. (Photo by CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN / AFP) (Photo by CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP …
CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP via Getty Images

Indonesian government authorities successfully halted a planned gathering of almost 9,000 Muslim pilgrims late Wednesday, amid fears it would spread Chinese coronavirus.

At least 8,695 Muslim pilgrims had already gathered near the provincial city of Makassar, Indonesia, on Wednesday, defying official government warnings to call off the meeting, citing its high potential to spread Chinese coronavirus. With the event already underway, regional police scrambled to launch a last-ditch effort Wednesday to persuade organizers to call off the event and were successful. According to regional officials, organizers had rejected formal requests from Indonesian health authorities to postpone the gathering.

A similar event in Malaysia two weeks ago caused more than 500 Chinese coronavirus infections. Held from February 27 to March 1, the event drew 16,000 Muslims. Roughly two-thirds of Malaysia’s 790 total infections have been traced to the meeting at a mosque complex outside of Kuala Lumpur. The event has been linked to 50 infections in neighboring Brunei. Other countries home to participants of the event – Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Singapore – have confirmed that citizens were infected there.

Both the Malaysian and planned Indonesian event were organized by members of the same far-reaching Muslim evangelical movement, Tablighi Jama’at, which holds proselytizing (dakwah) as one of its core principles. According to Reuters, promotional materials for the Indonesian event read, “The pleasure of living in this world is only a little, compared to the afterlife.”

An organizer of the Indonesian event responded with an eerily similar message when questioned over the risk the gathering posed to public health, saying, “We are more afraid of God … Because everyone’s human, we fear illnesses, death … But there’s something more to the body, which is our soul.”

Despite their success in canceling the Muslim gathering near Makassar Wednesday, Indonesian authorities failed to stop a separate gathering of hundreds of Christians at an ordination Mass for a new bishop in Bali Thursday, despite last-minute requests to halt the event. Doni Monardo, Chief of Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) and head of Indonesia’s Chinese coronavirus response team, pleaded with event organizers to cancel:

I beg to the Cardinal to please postpone the mass Ordination for Ruteng Bishop, for the sake of humanity … It’s very dangerous if it transmits to an elderly person or those with pre-existing illnesses. The carrier[s] can potentially become potential killer[s] because it can cause death.

Indonesian authorities face a two-fold risk to their nation’s health: The influx of foreign Muslims to the country for mass gatherings, and the embarkation of its own devout Muslims for pilgrimages (hajj) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. While Indonesian authorities successfully halted the latest mass gathering within its borders, its Religious Affairs Ministry simultaneously facilitated the travel of an estimated 221,000 Indonesian hajj pilgrims to Mecca.

“We are still gearing up for the haj as preparations are underway,” said Nizar Ali, the ministry’s director-general of hajj and umrah (minor hajj), in a statement Thursday. Ali admitted that these preparations defied Saudi Arabia’s official statement to Indonesia warning the country to postpone the travel:

We haven’t signed any contracts after receiving a letter from Saudi Arabia’s minister of haj and umrah stating that Indonesia needs to delay its settlement of all expenses with haj accommodation providers … It is because the Saudi government is imposing a [partial] lockdown to halt the spread of the disease.

As of Thursday, Indonesia had tested only 1,592 people for coronavirus out of its population of 264 million. By comparison, South Korea currently carries out more than 15,000 tests a day, with a population one-fifth the size of Indonesia’s.

The fourth most populous nation in the world, Indonesia faces growing pressure to increase the number of tests carried out on its citizens. Announcing its first case of Chinese coronavirus less than three weeks ago, Indonesia’s death toll now stands at 25, the highest in Southeast Asia. Responding to the alarming rate of increase Thursday, Indonesian president Joko Widodo said, “I ask that the number of testing kits and the number of test centers are increased and we get more hospitals involved.”

Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry also announced new travel guidelines Tuesday in an attempt to limit the spread of Chinese coronavirus. Indonesia will suspend its visa exemption policy for all countries for one month and expand restrictions for people who have traveled to countries most affected by the Chinese coronavirus.

At press time Thursday, Indonesia had 311 confirmed coronavirus infections and 25 deaths.

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