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Should You Go To Church? Religions Grapple With How To Balance Faith With Coronavirus Concerns

Topline: With the coronavirus having been officially declared a global pandemic, churches, temples and mosques are weighing their options ahead of upcoming holidays to protect their congregations and prevent further spread of the highly-contagious virus.

  • In Washington D.C., Health Department officials have recommended the cancellation of nonessential mass gatherings, including church services, after the news that the rector of a Georgetown Episcopal church and several members of the congregation tested positive for the coronavirus.
  • Young Israel of New Rochelle, the synagogue just outside of New York City at the center of a coronavirus cluster after its rabbi tested positive, celebrated the Jewish festival of Purim via livestream this week after restrictions were placed on social gatherings in the city.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Wednesday that their major conference taking place next month in Salt Lake City would only be streamed on TV and online out of concern for the coronavirus. 
  • Authorities in Saudi Arabia closed off access to The Great Mosque on Thursday and announced a temporary hold on issuing visas for foreigners to complete a pilgrimage called Umra, as well as restricting access for its own citizens— it has raised questions about how Saudi Arabia will approach this year’s Hajj, the annual religious pilgrimage that brings 2-3 million people to Mecca each year. 
  • Other religious services are going on as planned, but with slight revisions— on Sunday, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan removed the usual font of holy water available for worshippers, and bottles of Purell could be seen on the altar.
  • According to the Episcopal Diocese of New York, public worship will continue for the time being but liturgical adjustments are being made to protect congregants, like refraining from placing communion directly on the tongue of worshippers and suspending the practice of dipping bread into the wine during communion.
  • But in Greece, things are business as usual— the Greek Orthodox Church said Monday that it would continue to give communion in their traditional way: bread soaked with wine from the same chalice for the whole church. 

Crucial quote: “I don’t believe whether you go to church during this period of time is a test of faith,” said Andy Beshear, the Kentucky governor, as he urged people to stay home Wednesday. “I believe God gives us wisdom to protect each other, and we should do that.”

Key background: Health officials are stressing the need for social distancing, or avoiding crowds, to hamper the spread of the virus. Schools have been closed, major events were cancelled, employees are being encouraged to work from home and in some places, restrictive lockdowns have been put into place. Religious services are no different— it has even led to Pope Francis giving his weekly Sunday blessing via livestream for the first time in Vatican history.

What to watch for: If Pope Francis will hold Easter Mass as usual. Last week, the Vatican confirmed its first coronavirus case and closed offices as a precaution as the pope recovered from a mild cold unrelated to the virus. 

It’s unclear how much the outbreak will affect the leadup to Easter Sunday on April 12. Typically, the pope would preside over a procession at the Colosseum in Rome on Good Friday, and then deliver an Easter Day message in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday. 

The whole of Italy is under a lockdown, with strict instruction to avoid groups of people until at least April 3. The elderly are especially encouraged to avoid contact with too many people— given Pope Francis’ age and health, the livestreamed Sunday service last week may have been testing the waters for a virtual Easter.

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