Virus forces prayers at home for Eid

A view of the closed Al-Azhar mosque during Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan.
A view of the closed Al-Azhar mosque during Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan.

Observant Muslims in the Middle East have had to perform special prayers at home marking the start of the Eid al-Fitr festival due to mosque closures as part of restrictions to curb the outbreak of the new coronavirus.

Eid al-Fitr, one of Islam's two major festivals, follows the Muslim lunar fasting month of Ramadan.

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, as mosques remain shuttered 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 the Eid prayer at home.

"This is permissible because the danger of the disease is still there and the Eid prayer cannot be performed in mosques or outdoors," al-Azhar said in a statement.

The three-day festival is traditionally marked by visits to family and friends and eating sweet specialities. Children usually get new clothes and cash gifts on the occasion.

Several Arab countries have announced a complete or partial lockdown, and banned gatherings, during the Eid holiday in an attempt to curb the virus spread.

Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country of nearly 100 million people, starts later on Sunday enforcing a curfew from 5pm to 6 am for six consecutive days.

Public transport is halted, and entertainment places closed on those days to limit outdoor movement.

However, the 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 has the Arab world's highest coronavirus infection tally with 70,161 cases resulting in 379 deaths so far.

Australian Associated Press