The Jakarta Post
The government’s plan to gradually reopen places of worship has drawn mixed responses from religious groups and health experts, many of whom insist that any possible easing of curbs anywhere should be contingent on low risk of transmission.
For Muslim-majority Indonesia, where faith plays a large role in society, the pandemic has shuttered various mosques, temples and churches and prevented people from holding mass prayers.
However, the debate has managed to open a can of worms that pits public health against the right to practice religious beliefs.
Robikin Emhas, chairman of the country’s largest grassroots Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, said the current circumstances called for a thorough assessment of the options and should take various factors into account, including the rate of infection and the preparedness of the national healthcare system.
He said that any state policy should consider the actual conditions in the field as they relate to the infection curve, as well as the ability to contact-trace, quarantine and treat COVID-19 patients.
“As an exit strategy for the current large-scale social restrictions, a ‘new normal’ should be studied and prepared thoroughly so it may foster a productive livelihood for a society that is safe from COVID-19,” said Robikin, a vice presidential advisor.
Abdul Mu’ti, secretary-general of the nation’s second-largest Muslim group, Muhammadiyah, voiced a similar opinion, saying that reopening places of worship should not be done with haste, calling instead for the government to focus on prevention.
“There should be a guarantee from experts and authorities that can be held accountable. Only if these terms are fulfilled can we think about reopening, and even then only with strict [health] protocols,” Abdul told The Jakarta Post.
Rev. Japarline Marbun, head of the Bethel Church of Indonesia’s (GBI) synod, also said it would be better to err on the side of caution, considering how difficult it is to put in place the necessary health protocols in some churches.
“It is difficult, for instance, to expect congregations not to jostle as they enter the church, and there are many churches closed off with [poor] air circulation,” Japarlin said.
And while some preach about the importance of relying on science to ensure public health, others still find it hard to heed state-sanctioned physical distancing measures.
The nation’s top Muslim clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), which comprises many organizations including NU and Muhammadiyah, said that places of worship should be allowed to reopen their doors to worshipers in areas deemed safe from COVID-19 transmission.
“Under conditions where the spread of COVID-19 is under control, Muslims are obliged to carry out Friday prayers and allowed to get involved in mass prayer activities [...] so long as they stay mindful of not getting infected,” said Asrorun Niam Sholeh, the MUI’s fatwa commission secretary, in a statement.
Last week, Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi signed a circular detailing the necessary protocols for reopening places of worship in areas deemed to have little risk of viral transmission.
“The guidelines stipulate that any religious or social activity at a place of worship must take account of the real circumstances in the immediate vicinity and not just the status designated for that given area,” Fachrul said in a virtual press briefing on Saturday.
“Even if, for example, an area is considered a yellow zone, if COVID-19 transmission is found anywhere near a place of worship, that place cannot host any collective prayer.”
In order for a place of prayer to be reopened to the public, Fachrul said the local COVID-19 task force must recommend it in coordination with the relevant authorities. Recommendations can also be revoked if new infections are recorded or if there is a perceived lack of health protocol enforcement.
Three months after Indonesia reported its first COVID-19 infection, the government has come under fire for not acting swiftly enough to curb the spread of the disease among the nation’s devout – the millions of people who are accustomed to attending mass congregations and collective prayers.
A recent report from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) found that the lack of an early response to ban mass religious gatherings in the early days of COVID-19 transmission had contributed to the emergence of two infection clusters: the Gowa cluster linked with a tabligh (Muslim mass gathering) in South Sulawesi, and another from a religious seminar by GBI in Lembang, West Java.
“The lack of clear guidance on enforcement or sanctions could lead to unfortunate outcomes: new clusters of religious ‘super-spreaders’ or vigilantism, as some groups decide to take law into their own hands,” researchers said in the IPAC report.
The city of Brebes in Central Java was designated a COVID-19 “red zone” early last month after 16 of its residents tested positive for the disease after returning from the Gowa tabligh event, while 127 people were infected from the Lembang event.
University of Indonesia epidemiologist Pandu Riono said that restrictions on places of worship should be eased gradually and that the government should be prepared to conduct local testing and tracing should COVID-19 cases increase following the reopening of such locations.
There are always going to be concerns about violations or if [proper health protocol] is not observed,” Pandu told the Post.
“If people in a congregation from mosques or churches catch [the virus], the entire group should be tested and [places of worship] should be temporarily closed.”