COVID-19 Clusters Linked to Religious Gatherings Could Fuel Intolerance: Think-Tank

Arie Firdaus and Tia Asmara
200520_ID_IPAC_Tabligh_1000.jpg A police officer in a protective suit sprays disinfectant on a tent intended for a mass religious gathering in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province that was canceled at the last minute amid concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, March 19, 2020.

The emergence of clusters of coronavirus infections from recent mass religious gatherings in Indonesia brings about concerns that the pandemic could increase intolerance and communal tensions, a Jakarta-based think-tank says in a new report.

The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict examined several clusters of infections that emerged from mass events organized in the country by the Tablighi Jamaat group, a global Islamic missionary group, and the Indonesian Bethel Church (GBI), a Protestant Pentecostal network.

“Large gatherings of two religious organizations, one Muslim, one Christian, became ‘super-spreaders’ of the COVID-19 virus in Indonesia, raising concerns that the pandemic could lead to an increase in religious intolerance, heightened communal tensions or localized outbreaks of violence,” IPAC said in its 19-page study released on Tuesday.

Despite a few close calls, the think-tank said, no serious trouble had occurred as of mid-May, partly because of efforts by local leaders of the involved groups to defuse tensions.

“In general, the clusters carried the highest risk of triggering tensions where there was a previous history of trouble and the virus became a new dimension of an old pattern,” IPAC said.

As an example, it cited tensions that rose after a group of Tablighis returned to troubled Papua province from a mass religious gathering in Gowa, a regency in South Sulawesi province. The event was cancelled at the last minute in mid-March because of concerns that the large crowd of worshipers could be a source for the rapid spread of the virus.

For indigenous Papuans, the arrival of the Tablighis in the largely Christian region in far-eastern Indonesia “played into unease left over from an earlier incident when a group of Tablighis had been mistaken for terrorists, and likely into migrant-indigenous tensions as well,” according to IPAC.

The Tablighi Jamaat movement came under scrutiny after a mass gathering it held in Malaysia’s capital in late February emerged as a source for hundreds of coronavirus infections in more than half a dozen countries.

A planned similar gathering in Gowa regency has been blamed for more than 1,000 infections across 22 of Indonesia’s 34 provinces, with an additional 42 cases in Thailand and 12 in Malaysia, IPAC said.

About 18,000 people, including 465 from 10 other countries had arrived in Gowa before authorities forced organizers to cancel the event on March 18.

“The phenomenon of religious super-spreaders has produced some stigmatization, particularly of Tablighis, but not violence. The fact that Tablighis generally have such good relations with the government undoubtedly helped,” IPAC said.

It faulted the Indonesian government for not acting earlier to ban mass gatherings.

Anti-Christian hate speech

Last month in West Java province, Gov. Ridwan Kamil said that more than 200 people who tested positive for COVID-19 in the city of Bandung had attended a gathering of the Bethel Indonesia Church in Lembang, a hilltop just outside the provincial capital. A priest and his wife died after testing positive for the virus.

Also in April, 41 students living at a Bethel Theological College dormitory in Central Jakarta tested positive as well, forcing other occupants to be quarantined.

“The Bethel cluster produced a rash of untrue anti-Christian hate speech suggesting, in one posting, that 10,000 pastors linked to GBI and another Pentecostal group were Indonesia’s ‘silent killers,’” the report said.

But the outbreak in the dormitory did not lead to any organized action by the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), a vigilante group known for its anti-vice raids and whose headquarters is near the seminary.

Rizieq Shihab, the group’s leader who is now based in Saudi Arabia, is a graduate of the Bethel junior high school and “turns out to feel very warmly toward his alma mater,” the report said.

Both the Tablighi Jamaat and GBI have stopped their preaching activities and gatherings but a stigma around them as “super-spreaders” of the coronavirus could last beyond the pandemic, IPAC said.

‘Stay at home as much as possible’

National police spokesman Ahmad Ramadhan said he had not seen the IPAC report, but urged people not to engage in vigilantism.

“Communities must work together to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” he told BenarNews.

Achmad Yurianto, spokesman for the government’s coronavirus task force, declined to comment on the report, but said the public should follow the government’s health guidelines and not travel at the end of Ramadan to avoid spreading the virus.

“Because often we don’t know who is sick. Stay at home as much as possible,” Yurianto told BenarNews.

The Eid ul-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan, falls on May 24 this year.

On Wednesday, Indonesia recorded 693 new coronavirus cases, the country’s highest jump in a single day, bringing the national tally to 19,189, Yurianto said.

Twenty-one additional deaths were reported overnight, taking the total number of fatalities to 1,242, he said.

On Monday, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ruled out easing COVID-19 restrictions soon, amid public criticism following signs that the government was easing measures to curb the spread of the virus in order to keep the economy running.

Some shopping centers in the greater Jakarta area have reopened, while traffic has been busy again in recent days ahead of Eid.

The capital, Jakarta, remains the epicenter of the outbreak, with more than 6,000 cases.

Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan announced overnight that the so-called large-scale social restriction around the pandemic, known locally as PSBB, which first came into force on April 10, would be extended in the nation’s capital until June 4.

“This could be the final period of PSBB if we are disciplined. Don’t let us extend again,” Anies told an online news conference.


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