JAKARTA, Indonesia – Millions of Muslims across Asia began celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan on Thursday with solemn sunrise prayers followed by savory high-calorie feasts to mark their holiest holiday, despite concerns over violence looming across parts of the region and elsewhere worldwide.
In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, throngs of believers made their way to mosques donning brand new clothes to kick off the start of Eid al-Fitr, festivities that culminate after a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and prayer when Muslims are supposed to abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex as a way to test their faith. The holiday is also a time of reflection, forgiveness and charity — cars were seen driving around the capital, Jakarta, handing out envelopes to the poor.
Not all countries begin celebrations on the same day. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for instance, are expected to officially begin Eid on Friday after the moon is sighted by officials there.
Despite the holiday's peaceful message, some countries remained on heightened alert amid fears over potential violence in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. Concerns also lingered in parts of the Middle East and Africa after Washington temporarily closed 19 diplomatic posts over terrorism worries while U.S. and British embassy employees were evacuated from Yemen where the government announced it had foiled an al-Qaida plot.
Earlier this week, a small bomb exploded outside a Buddhist temple packed with devotees praying in Jakarta. Only one person was injured, but two other devices failed to detonate. Officials have said the attack appears to have been carried out by militant Muslims angry over sectarian violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
"Indonesia has the resilience to cope with terror ... but we should not underestimate it," Mohammad Mahfud, former chief justice of the Constitutional Court, said Thursday outside a mosque in Jakarta. "It still remains a concern for us."
National Police chief Gen. Timur Pradopo said he mobilized thousands of officers to help safeguard the millions involved in the mass exodus across the country, an archipelago of some 17,000 islands. Police also stood guard at mosques, churches and temples in many cities. On Thursday night, fireworks exploded all night across the capital, with hundreds gathering in a landmark traffic circle downtown to watch the impromptu displays.
Authorities in Central Java also tightened security around Borobudur, an ancient Buddhist temple and a major tourist site.
In the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, about 100 Muslims braved a stormy morning to pray at the city's sole mosque on the edge of the city's old quarter. The Vietnamese imam gave a sermon in Arabic and then English to the congregation, most of whom were expatriates. Vietnam is also home to some 60,000 indigenous Muslims, most of them in the south.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines government troops and police strengthened security in the southern province of Maguindanao and outlying regions due to a spate of deadly bombings and other attacks during Ramadan that were blamed on a breakaway Muslim group called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement. The group, which authorities say has about 200 armed fighters, opposes peace talks between the government and the main insurgent group.
The hard-line rebels have vowed to continue fighting for a separate homeland for minority Muslims in the volatile south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.
Thailand's security agencies have also warned about more frequent, escalated insurgency attacks at the end of the Ramadan period in the three Muslim-dominated southernmost provinces that border with Malaysia, despite the ongoing peace talks with Muslim separatists facilitated by its southern neighbor.
The separatist negotiators of the militant National Revolution Front vowed at the beginning of the Islamic fasting month that they would attempt to halt the attacks throughout the period, while Thai authorities had cut back their searches for insurgents but the unrest pursued.
In one of the most high-profile attacks this week, a well-respected Muslim cleric who is known to sympathize with Thai authorities in their bid to end the violence was shot dead at a local market on Monday. Six security officers and five civilians were injured in three other attacks on the same day.
"The end of Ramadan is the period the insurgents would attempt to show off their strategies and attacks," said Col. Jaroon Ampha, an adviser to the National Security Council.
Muslims believe God revealed the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad during Ramadan, which starts with the sighting of the new moon. The Muslim lunar calendar moves back through the seasons, meaning Ramadan starts 11 days earlier each year under the Western calendar.
Associated Press writers Ali Kotarumalos and Andi Jatmiko in Jakarta, Indonesia; Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok, Chris Brummitt in Hanoi, Vietnam; and Farid Hossain in Dhaka, Bangladesh contributed to this report.