(Repeats without modification)
* Four-day Muslim meeting attended by 16,000 people
* Hundreds of coronavirus cases among participants
* Malaysia closes its borders to contain the outbreak
* Cases of the mosque event spread across South Asia
By A. Ananthalakshmi and Joseph Sipalan
KUALA LUMPUR, March 17 (Reuters) – The faithful slept in full tents outside the golden-domed mosque, waking up before dawn to kneel on rows of prayer rugs arranged in its cavernous central hall. In the meantime, the coronavirus was going unnoticed among the guests.
The Muslim meeting held late last month in a sprawling mosque complex on the outskirts of Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, emerged as the source of hundreds of new coronavirus infections across Southeast Asia.
A 34-year-old Malaysian man who attended the event died Tuesday, Malaysia’s health minister Adham Baba said, the first death linked to the February 27-March 1 event at the Sri Petaling mosque complex.
16,000 people attended, including 1,500 foreigners.
Of the 673 confirmed cases of Malaysia’s coronavirus, nearly two thirds are linked to the four-day meeting, Adham said. It is unclear who brought the virus there in the first place.
Reuters talked to six participants and reviewed the photos and posts on social media, and accounts and evidence showed several ways the outbreak could have spread.
The hosts, the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jama’at, which dates back to its origins in India a century ago, on Monday suspended missionary activities but did not comment directly on the Malaysian event.
Tablighi Jama’at did not respond to a request for further comment. The mosque where the event took place was closed on Tuesday and one guest said it was one of the dozen faithful still there in quarantine. Calls to the mosque remained unanswered.
Malaysia intends to close its borders, limit internal movements and close schools, universities and most businesses, while trying to control its coronavirus outbreak. All mosques will remain closed for two weeks.
“I was actually very surprised that it went on,” said Surachet Wae-asae, a former Thai lawmaker who attended the event but has since tested negative for coronavirus after returning home.
“But in Malaysia God is very important. The belief is strong. ”
The prime minister’s office and the ministry of health declined to comment further on the event.
HOLDING HANDS, SHARING PLATES
The meeting, in which guests had to take shuttle buses to sleep in other places, was attended by citizens of dozens of countries, including Canada, Nigeria, India and Australia, according to a list of participants published on social media.
There were also citizens of China and South Korea – two countries with high rates of coronavirus infections.
Social media posts show hundreds of worshipers praying shoulder to shoulder inside the mosque, while some guests post selfies while sharing food.
It was unclear how many guests were resident in Malaysia, but cases related to the meeting are popping up daily in Southeast Asia.
“We sat next to each other,” a 30-year-old Cambodian man who attended the event told Reuters about a hospital in Battambang province in Cambodia, where he was treated after testing positive for the coronavirus on Monday.
“Holding hands at the religious ceremony was done with people from many countries. When I met people, I held hands, it was normal. I don’t know who I got infected from, “he said, asking not to be named because of fears of discrimination in his mosque.
None of the event leaders spoke of hand washing, coronavirus or health precautions during the event, but most guests washed their hands regularly, two guests said. Washing your hands among other parts of the body is part of the Muslim cult.
Another Cambodian participant said that guests from different countries shared dishes over dinner.
Only half of the Malaysian participants who participated came forward for the tests, the health minister said, raising concerns that the outbreak from the mosque could be more far-reaching.
Brunei confirmed 50 cases related to the mosque meeting, out of a total of 56 cases. Singapore has announced five related to the event, Cambodia 13 and Thailand at least two.
Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, attended by nearly 700 citizens, are investigating.
That a great religious pilgrimage should have gone on, at a time when the epidemic had killed 2,700 people and was spreading from Italy to Iran, has raised criticism.
More than 182,000 people have been infected with the coronavirus globally and 7,165 have died.
“That Tablighi event in KL (Kuala Lumpur) … could also cause a regional spike and it was irresponsible that the authorities had allowed it to take place,” said Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan on his Facebook page.
It is not the only religious event to spread the virus on a large scale. Thousands of cases in South Korea are connected to the services of the Shincheonji church of Jesus in the city of Daegu.
At the time of the event in Malaysia, the country was in a political turmoil. The country had a solitary government in the interim prime minister, 94 years old, Mahathir Mohamad, who had left the country and was temporarily re-elected on the same day.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as new prime minister on March 1 and banned mass meetings on March 13. Previously, there were only councils from the ministry of health to minimize public exposure.
Some participants defended the event, stating that the situation in Malaysia at the moment – which had announced 25 known cases by February 28 – was not serious.
“We weren’t worried then because the COVID-19 situation was under control at the time,” said Khuzaifah Kamazlan, a 34-year-old Kuala Lumpur-based religious teacher who attended the event but turned out to be negative for coronavirus.
Khuzaifah said some faithful who have attended the event since then have refused to be tested for coronavirus, preferring to rely on God to protect them.
Karim, a 44-year-old Malaysian who attended the meeting and subsequently tested positive for coronavirus, says the government should have canceled the event.
“We are a little disappointed that this outbreak has been fully accused of us. That opinion is unfair. Our meeting was not banned,” said Karim, who only gave his name.
“Now I’m worried because I’m positive. Please pray for me. “(Report by A. Ananthalakshmi and Joseph Sipalan in Kuala Lumpur; Additional report by Rozanna Latiff, Krishna N. Das and Liz Lee in Kuala Lumpur, Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh, Panu Wongcha-um and Kay Johnson in Bangkok, Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta, Neil Jerome Morales in Manila and Fathin Ungku in Singapore; Written by Joe Brock; Edited by Mike Collett-White)
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