Around 10,000 Muslims and Christians amassed at a pair of religious gatherings in Indonesia Thursday as officials in the island nation are struggling to keep people separated during the coronavirus outbreak.
The events brought massive crowds together as Indonesia reported six more deaths for a total of 25 – the most in Southeast Asia – and 311 confirmed cases.
“We've worked hard in dealing with this issue, involving religious leaders and security forces,” South Sulawesi Gov. Nurdin Abdullah said. “We have told the pilgrims that we are in an emergency state of coronavirus and only common discipline can break the COVID-19's wide spread.”
One of the gatherings Thursday – which Indonesian officials were able to halt after participants arrived – was organized by a Muslim missionary movement, Jamaat Tabligh, which held a similar event in Malaysia three weeks ago. That event has been linked to nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 900 infections as well as dozens of cases in other nations.
At the Indonesia event, throngs of Muslim pilgrims descended upon a boarding school in South Sulawesi province for what was supposed to be a four-day gathering. It was not approved by authorities.
After the event was put on hold, Abdullah said medical teams screening more than 8,600 of its participants found a local man with a fever who was taken to a hospital.
Pictures and videos posted on social media showed long rows of blue makeshift tents on a field at the school. Devotees in long white robes and skullcaps sat close to each other or slept on mats on the ground.
Sentot Abu Thoriq, a member of the organizing committee, told the Associated Press he regretted the government's decision to reject the event that had been planned more than a year ago. He said those who are ill have been told to stay away and noted that those arriving would have passed stringent health checks at the country's airports and seaports.
"The decision and the treatment is clearly against our faith and hurt us," Thoriq said. “Health, illness or death is God's destiny, we believe that God will bless and protect those who are devout."
The committee later said it accepted the government's decision for the safety of all.
Abdullah said 411 attendees from nine countries, including Malaysia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, will now be quarantined at a hotel. Indonesians will be escorted to their home villages or must stay in a government dormitory, but quarantine is compulsory for 14 days once they reach home, he added.
In another large religious gathering, Catholics attended the ordination of a new bishop on Thursday in a remote town on Flores island. Organizers said about 4,000 people from across the country attended, although government officials said there were 1,000.
Images of the ceremony posted on social media showed people inside the Ruteng cathedral seated next to each other, ignoring social distancing measures. Ruteng resident Sebastian Rida said health officers asked guests to use masks and hand sanitizers but not everyone complied. Rida said he wasn't worried about the virus threat.
“I did not think about it. I just wanted to see the new bishop,” he said.
Provincial official Marius Ardu Jelamu said the event was long-planned and couldn't be postponed, but that they tried to restrict people from attending. Cabinet ministers and other top officials also didn't participate.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.