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Thousands of Muslim pilgrims ignore virus risk to gather in Indonesia

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JAKARTA/KUALA LUMPUR: Thousands of Muslim pilgrims from across Asia gathered in Indonesia yesterday, despite fears their meeting could spread the coronavirus, just two weeks after a similar event in Malaysia caused more than 500 infections.

Organisers and regional officials said the event in the world's fourth most populous nation had begun, although the regional police chief said he was making a last ditch-effort to persuade organisers to call it off.

"We are more afraid of God," one of the organisers, Mr Mustari Bahranuddin said when asked about the risk of participants spreading the virus at the event in Gowa in Indonesia's province of South Sulawesi.

"Because everyone's human, we fear illnesses, death," he said. "But there's something more to the body, which is our soul."

Organisers had rejected a request from the authorities to postpone the gathering, said regional official Arifuddin Saeni.

He estimated that 8,695 people had assembled in Gowa, near the provincial city of Makassar, adding that the numbers would make it hard to put a halt to the proceedings.

"They are still coming," he said. "There are people from Thailand, (Saudi) Arabia, India and the Philippines."

The Malaysian event, held from Feb 27 to March 1, drew more than 10,000 followers.

Both gatherings in Indonesia and Malaysia were organised by members of Tablighi Jama'at, a global movement of evangelical Muslims that promotes proselytising, known as dakwah.

About two-thirds of Malaysia's 790 infections have been traced to the meeting at a mosque complex on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Tiny neighbour Brunei has confirmed 50 infections linked to it, while Cambodia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have also said citizens were infected there.

Organisers in Indonesia were checking pilgrims' temperatures as a precaution, Mr Bahranuddin added.

Mr Saeni said health officials had visited the site and asked to monitor participants.

By yesterday, Indonesia's tally of infections stood at 227, with 19 deaths. The nation of 260 million had run just 1,255 tests by Tuesday. By contrast, South Korea, with a population of a fifth that size, is doing more than 15,000 tests a day. - REUTERS