KUALA LUMPUR - 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 (July 20), 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 on Wednesday, 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, 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 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 (small mosque or prayer hall) 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, gathering 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 whom 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 home towns 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.
Some of those who did visit their parents for Hari Raya said they decided to do so after having considered the risks.
"I wanted to see my parents at least for Hari Raya because I never go to their house even though we live in the same district. We don't go out, and neither do my parents, and I felt it was safe because both my parents are fully vaccinated," administrative assistant Hamidah Ismail, 42, told The Straits Times.
Others said they opted to stay at home due to the high numbers reported daily.
"We did not have any gatherings to keep everyone safe," said housewife Karlina Kamarul, 40.