Coronavirus: From prayer mats to no services, how the outbreak is reshaping religious traditions across the world
In the wake of coronavirus outbreak, religious leaders are taking precautions and making changes to traditional ceremonies in an attempt to halt the spread of the deadly pandemic, which has claimed over 3000 people globally.
Churches in the US and UK are suspending communion wine whereas both Christians and Muslims are being discouraged from shaking hands, hugging or sharing prayer mats at religious gatherings.
“Traditionalist may want the service, but this is not just the flu,” Reverend Jeffery Ott, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, said. “We are all responsible to stop the spread," he added.
The US appears to be an emerging hotspot: the country has reported more than 500 positive cases, catching the attention of religious groups.
In response, the Catholic Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle, the country's worst hit area with over 30 confirmed cases, wrote a letter to parish leaders, asking them not to distribute communion wine until further notice. He also advised his followers to stay home from Mass if they are sick; to practice good hygiene, including frequent handwashing; and to avoid hand-to-hand contact during moments in the church service when churchgoers traditionally shake hands.
Other dioceses in Atlanta, Boston, Joliet, Illinois, San Antonio, and Newark and Paterson, New Jersey are also doing the same. Further, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has prepared a list of recommendations. Some dioceses said they would leave some decisions to the discretion of their parish priest.
According to experts, these changes are helpful. People attending religious services, or other events, are often huddled together. "A lot of times you're putting vulnerable people together — the elderly — [together]. So, to me, that's the risk," Trish Perl, chief of the infectious diseases division at UT Southwestern Medical Center told NPR.
These measures come after the COVID-19 gained a foothold in South Korea. Most infections have been traced back to the Shincheonji religious group in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city. With more than 7,000 cases, the country has the highest disease burden after China. Three-quarters of these cases are concentrated in Daegu.
The Pope, for his part, is reducing his public appearances to prevent crowds from gathering as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus. The Vatican confirmed its first COVID-19 case on Friday. "We do this so that the close concentration of people won't spread the virus," the Pope said on Sunday.
He will be streaming his Wednesday audience from the library in the Apostolic Palace, according to reports. Aged 83, the Pope is at an increased risk of catching the infection. Italy has over 7,300 coronavirus cases. Churches across Northern Italy have canceled Ash Wednesday services.
Mosques are also following suit. As a precautionary measure, Saudi Arabia has temporarily suspended travel to its holy sites. But they are yet to decide on this year's Hajj, during which Mecca opens its doors to three million people from July 28 to August 2.
The kingdom had earlier closed the holy cities -- Mecca and Medina -- for cleaning on March 5 but reponed it the next day. Iran, on the other hand, has not shut down its Hazrat Masumeh Shrine in Qom, another city with a major COVID-19 outbreak.
Muslim religious leaders are relaxing a few stringent rules by permitting worshippers to offer prayers from home.
In Singapore, the government has advised Muslims to bring their prayer mats to mosques. "In these circumstances, we will not be shaking hands. But if you do, wash your hands, and then make sure you don't touch your face. This is just a precaution for many of us who always forget that," Masagos Zulkifli, a minister in charge of Muslim affairs in Singapore, said.
“For the time being, it may be worth avoiding touch and switching to a hand on the heart, a respectful nod, and a warm smile,” Omar Ricci, spokesman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, wrote in an email.
Other countries like Tajikistan, with zero confirmed cases, have also taken precautionary measures, including suspending Friday prayers.
Similarly, the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in Seattle announced that it has halted worship services or other large gatherings. However, the temple will remain open to individual worshippers for an hour each evening.
While most religious groups are adopting changes, some seem recalcitrant -- even if the outbreak worsens in the US. An Anglican congregation in Nashville, Tennessee will continue offering wine during Communion, with the chalice being carefully wiped by a cloth between each use.
“Scientists have shown that the risk of transmitting disease in this way is very low,” pastor Thomas McKenzie wrote.
“Please know that we will worship on Sunday morning no matter what,” he wrote. “Some other church events might be canceled -- as we sometimes do in bad weather -- at the request of local authorities. However, we Anglicans have long continued to worship even in the face of bombs, persecutions, earthquakes, fires, floods and, yes, disease," he added.