Pilgrims gather in Indonesia despite coronavirus fears

Singapore's Sultan Mosque. Photo by Helen Littlethorpe on Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

More than 8,000 Muslim pilgrims have already gathered in Gowa, in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province, despite a formal request to postpone the event from regional authorities. Authorities are still trying to halt the event, though they admitted that the number of attendees who have already arrived may make it difficult to stop the event from going ahead.

The event, organised by evangelical group Tablighi Jama’at, has drawn pilgrims from throughout ASEAN. Organiser Mustari Bahranuddin explained that, while the conference’s attendees were worried about the possibility of contracting the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), “we are more afraid of God”. Bahranuddin also highlighted that participants’ temperatures are being checked as a precaution.

The gathering has raised particular concerns given that a similar event, held by the same group at the end of February, was instrumental in spreading the coronavirus in Malaysia. Nearly two-thirds of all COVID-19 cases confirmed in Malaysia can be traced back to the February meeting at a mosque outside Kuala Lumpur.

The figure may be significantly higher, as Malaysian health authorities have been unable to track down all of the 16,000 pilgrims who attended the February event, and many are believed to have returned to neighbouring Singapore and Brunei. After attending the event, five of the Singaporean pilgrims visited ten mosques in Singapore before testing positive for COVID-19, raising fears that they may have spread the virus to an untold number of worshippers.

The latest pilgrimage to Gowa shines a light on the dilemma facing organisers of large religious events in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly half of South Korea’s COVID-19 cases have been tracked back to a gathering of followers of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Another cluster was recently discovered associated with a Protestant church in the city of Seongnam, south of Seoul.

The South Korean government recommends against mass gatherings, including religious events, while Malaysia banned them on March 16th as part of a broader lockdown. Jakarta has yet to take measures as aggressive as Kuala Lumpur has, even as its death toll from the virus jumped to the highest in the region on Wednesday, March 18.