Coronavirus: Malaysia

49 arrested for breaching rules outside Penang prayer hall

Malaysian police have arrested 49 men for allegedly being part of a gathering of more than 200 worshippers outside a prayer hall in Penang during Hari Raya Haji on Tuesday, a holy festival for Muslims, despite social distancing rules in place.

The gathering on a holy day for Muslims, together with several others the same day, underscored the disregard for Covid-19 safety protocols despite warnings from the authorities and the persistently high number of new infections reported each day.

Malaysia reported 11,985 new cases yesterday, taking the total tally in the country closer to the one million mark, at 951,884.

Viral video footage showing dozens of Muslims, believed to be foreigners, praying in the open, and they made the rounds on Tuesday, sparking alarm among netizens.

Those arrested were 48 Bangladeshis aged between 20 and 43, and a 64-year-old local man. Penang police chief Datuk Mohd Shuhaily Mohd Zain said that initial investigations revealed that more than 200 people had gathered to pray outside the prayer hall in Taman Pelangi, Bukit Mertajam, after they were barred from entering it.

The hall had already exceeded its capacity of 100 people by then as it was already swarming with hundreds of congregants even before prayers began at 8.30am.

The management ordered some to leave before closing the gate.

"However, the management of the surau did not disperse the crowd, knowing full well the sensitivity of the Aidiladha prayer. They also did not alert the police to the matter," the police chief was quoted as saying by The New Straits Times daily.

"This resulted in more than 200 people in the congregation, mainly foreigners, to gather spontaneously outside the surau for the Aidiladha prayer, whilst observing physical distancing. They left after prayers about 9am."

Taman Pelangi has a population of about 8,000 people, 70 per cent of which are foreigners, who are working in factories nearby.

Though much of the country is still under varying degrees of a lockdown, the government allowed Hari Raya Haji prayers at mosques and prayer halls on Tuesday, as well as animal sacrificial rites, subject to restrictions.

The annual Hari Raya return to hometowns and house-to-house visiting were not allowed. Police reported that nearly 5,000 vehicles were turned back at state borders on Friday, ahead of the weekend before the Muslim celebration.

Hazlin Hassan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2021, with the headline '49 arrested for breaching rules outside Penang prayer hall'. Subscribe