First, many religious leaders modified their rituals, hoping to contain the spread of coronavirus. Now, some are taking more drastic measures, canceling worship services, closing religious schools and shuttering holy sites.
Like sports leagues, museums and other cultural institutions, millions of churches and mosques, synagogues and sanghas, temples and gurdwaras are temporarily closing to guard against spreading the virus.
For many spiritual leaders, the decision to shut their doors is difficult. Religious rituals are meant to be enacted, soul and body, traditionally alongside other believers.
But the present dangers of the deadly virus are too great to ignore, many religious groups have decided, leading to a cascade of cancellations worldwide in the last 48 hours.
On Sunday, the Vatican announced that Holy Week celebrations in Rome, events that typically draw thousands of pilgrims from around the world, will be closed to the public because of the
“current global public health emergency.” The Pope’s weekly public audiences have been suspended until April 12 but will be live-streamed by Vatican News.
Globally, more than 140,000 people have contracted Covid-19, according World Health Organization. Several governors in the United States have banned gatherings larger than 250 people as a result.
“For many Christians, the very concept of not gathering as the people of God is unacceptable,” wrote evangelical leader Ed Stetzer. “We love gathering in person — with feet and faces — but for now, we may best love our neighbor by gathering via electrons and avatars.”
But with Easter, Ramadan, Passover and other holy days approaching, coronavirus will undoubtedly upend religious lives in 2020.
Here are some examples of how the pandemic is already affecting congregations and believers throughout the world.
On Thursday, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told its 15 million members worldwide all public gatherings would be suspended until further notice. None of Mormonism’s 30,000 congregations will gather for sacrament meetings this Sunday, or for the near future.
“Bishops should counsel with their stake president to determine how to make the sacrament available to members at least once a month,” the Latter-day Saints leaders added.
Meanwhile, more and more US Catholic dioceses and archdioceses have canceled Mass and nearly 20 have lifted the obligation to attend Mass. Other dioceses are encouraging older Catholics to stay home or to forgo the sacrament of Communion.
On Friday, the Archdiocese of Chicago, which serves more than 2 million Catholics, suspended public Masses as of Saturday evening and closed the archdiocese’s 200 schools.
“This was not a decision I made lightly,” said Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich in a statement.
“The Eucharist is the source and summit of our life as Catholics. And our schools and agencies provide essential services to many thousands.”
But, Cupich said, “it is clear that we must take the better part of caution in order to slow the spread of this pandemic.”
The Eternal City is empty
Cupich may take comfort in the idea that his boss, Pope Francis, lives under similar restrictions.
The Diocese of Rome has closed its chapels and churches, and its iconic St. Peter’s Square is eerily empty of tourists and pilgrims. A church historian told CNN the shutdowns are unprecedented, the first time in centuries the Eternal City’s holy sites have been closed.
In Washington, the Episcopal and Catholic dioceses also closed public services, after an Episcopal rector who gave Communion and shook hands with worshipers became the first confirmed Covid-19 case in the nation’s capital.
But not every church is closing.
In Portland, Oregon, Archbishop Alexander K. Sample urged priests to “be creative” in making the sacrament of Communion accessible while abiding by Gov. Kate Brown, order canceled all public gatherings of more than 250 people.
After initially announcing that it would leave the decision to attend Mass up to Catholics’ judgment, the Archdiocese of New York canceled services starting Sunday. Churches will remain open for private prayer, the archdiocese said.
‘Our moral duty’
For many Muslim men, group prayers on Friday are a religious obligation. But as congregations across the country and the world weighed whether to stay open, experts in Islamic law stepped in.
One of the more influential statements came via the Islamic Society of North America. Together with Muslim medical experts, the society strongly recommended that congregations take precautions against the pandemic, including immediately suspending congregational prayers, Sunday school, and other community gatherings.
“It is our moral duty as Muslims that we take all steps necessary to safeguard ourselves and others around us from this terrible disease,” the Fiqh Council of America wrote in the society’s statement.
“One’s personal desire to do obligatory prayers at the masjid (mosque) or fulfill other religious duties comes secondary to ensuring the common health of the larger community.”
Muslims in Kuwait, Germany, Iran and other spots around the world have also suspended services as of Friday.
Some Muslim leaders in America are urging their communities to be prepared for a protracted fight against coronavirus.
‘Protecting human life’
In non-hierarchical religions, like Judaism and Buddhism, local congregations are making their own decisions or looking to scholars for advice.
The Rabbinical Assembly, which issues opinions on Jewish law for Conservative movement Jews, advised following civil and medical guidance. It also advised engaged Jews to postpone their weddings, if possible
“Protecting human life overrides almost every other Jewish value,” the assembly said in a statement.
The Rabbinical Council of America, which issues guidelines for Orthodox Jews, modified their guidance as the week wore on. On Friday, the council said public gatherings in synagogues and schools should be severely limited. (They also noted the decision of rabbis in Bergen County, New Jersey, to shut down services and gatherings.)
The Sikh Coalition issued guidelines via an infectious disease specialist in California. Dr. Jasjit K. Singh urged fellow Sikhs to take precautions, but not to panic. By Friday, several gurdwaras, including in Washington, DC, had decided to cancel services this weekend.
Many Buddhist centers and sanghas have canceled services and public events through most of March. That’s particularly true in areas where the virus has been active, such as Washington state.
In Seattle, the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism will close until April.
“Before the end of March, we will re-assess the situation and decide how to proceed in April,” the monastery said in a statement.
“In the meantime we pray that everyone remains healthy and safe.”