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Coronavirus: Indonesian Muslims struggle as mosques reduce Ramadan food handouts for needy

AsiaOne - April 26, 2021

Fatima Gud, a 54-year-old Indonesian widow, visits the Al-Mashun Mosque in the city of Medan, North Sumatra, almost every day during Ramadan – the Islamic holy month during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

Fatima, a 54-year-old widow, enjoys the mosque's calm atmosphere and the chance to spend time in its picturesque grounds. Usually, she stays there until sunset then breaks her fast with 1,000 other worshippers at a communal table in the mosque's main pavilion.

The Al-Mashun has been serving its signature spicy porridge for iftar, the meal eaten after sunset during Ramadan, since it first opened in 1909. But for the second year in a row, the dish won't be served as the coronavirus pandemic rages in Indonesia, which has logged more than 1.6 million cases.

Mohammad Hamdan, the mosque's custodian, said the decision to cancel the free meals was not taken lightly.

"The problem was that we knew we couldn't control the crowds," he said. "As we serve 1,000 portions per night, people come early and queue up for the porridge, meaning there is no opportunity for social distancing."

While the government has not banned iftar meals and communal prayers entirely, it has issued guidelines to discourage crowds, Hamdan said.

Indonesia, home to 270 million people, has the world's biggest Muslim population, with eight in 10 people being adherents of Islam.

Many people like Fatima rely on free meals, Hamdan said. According to the Indonesian National Bureau of Statistics, 27.55 million people live below the poverty line of US$25 per month. Almost 3 million people also fell into poverty between September 2019 and September 2020, as businesses closed and laid off staff during the pandemic.

"If I don't get a meal from a mosque or donation, I buy three banana fritters for 2,000 rupiah (US$0.14) or a small portion of rice for 5,000 rupiah. Sometimes I wait outside a restaurant and someone will usually buy a meal for me, but I don't need anything elaborate to break my fast with," Fatima said. "Anything I get to eat is a gift from God. As it says in the Koran, we should be grateful for everything we receive."

Culinary consultant Arie Parikesit said Muslims in Indonesia have had to adjust their ways of worshipping and carrying out other religious activities during the pandemic. Many mosques have shut and stopped holding congregational prayers or sharing iftar meals during Ramadan, with some giving out takeaway food instead.

"The Jogokaryan Mosque in Yogyakarta, for example, is distributing iftar meals in the form of various snacks and packages of rice," Parikesit said. "But this year, interest in the meals has increased and a larger number of residents have come in the hopes of receiving one of the food packages to ease their economic burden."

Parikesit added that other traditional Ramadan activities had also been affected, such as the presence of small-scale vendors selling traditional snacks used to break fast, called takjil.

"The Jogokaryan Mosque is usually crowded with vendors selling food to break fast at sunset. But this year is a little different as, officially, the market is not being held, even though a few vendors are still setting up their stalls out of necessity," he said.

In place of its spicy porridge, Medan's Al-Mashun mosque has started handing out food parcels. The Sikh Sewak Indonesia Sumut group also recently donated 250 meals per day over four days, Hamdan said.

"Unfortunately, we had to limit it to 250 meals per day as we were worried about the risk of infection if large crowds formed," he said.

Business owner Sri, who uses one name, said her shop selling school uniforms and graduation outfits had been hit hard as many students have been studying from home and graduation ceremonies have been cancelled.

Despite struggling financially however, the 58-year-old visits the Al-Mashun once a week to make hot, sweet tea in an attempt to fill part of the void left by the cancelled iftar meals and reduced numbers of food packages.

"We use 3kg of sugar and three packs of tea bags, but that only yields about 50 cups," she said. "I don't have any spare money to do anything else at the moment, but at least people can have drinks."

Sri makes the tea with one of the mosque's ground staff, Sutomo, who is usually in charge of helping make the traditional spicy porridge. While he understands the health risks behind being around large groups of people, he said he still wanted to be of service during Ramadan, even if it was on a smaller scale.

"We give the tea to anyone who asks for it," he said. "It's not much, but it's all we can do because of the virus."

[This article was first published in South China Morning Post.]

Source: https://www.asiaone.com/asia/coronavirus-indonesian-muslims-struggle-mosques-reduce-ramadan-food-handouts-need