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Religious celebrations in the time of coronavirus

April 10, 2020

Easter, Passover, Ramadan — how can the faithful fulfill their religious obligations when large gatherings are forbidden due to the coronavirus. Sabine Kinkartz says it's possible, but it requires a bit of creativity.

A Catholic Mass being recorded and streamed live from Trier Cathedral
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Bistum Trier

Public religious ceremonies have been banned, but the doors to the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Berlin's Charlottenburg district are wide open. The church wants to remain open during these trying times to give the faithful a quiet place to pray — individually of course. Still, it is important to maintain the idea of congregation, so the parish has found other ways to bring people together.

On a table at the rear of the church are schedules for online masses. These include weekly readings and hymns, and explain how parish members can participate in the services from home. The parish website even has extra audio files featuring organ music for accompaniment. Easter candles, individually packed in cardboard boxes, line the steps in front of the altar; beside them, a few left over fronds from Palm Sunday.

Read more: German churches overcoming coronavirus isolation

Parishioners also won't have to do without their priest, Father Gerald Tanye, either — they can watch his homilies on the Holy Spirit's new YouTube channel.

A message reading "in God we trust" at the altar of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Berlin's Charlottenburg
A message reading "in God we trust" at the altar of the Holy Spirit Catholic ChurchImage: DW/S. Kinkartz

The internet is a blessing for many

Although the current pandemic has severely restricted religious life, the internet allows Christians a number of freedoms not available to those practicing other faiths — it makes no difference, for instance, if one prays along with a digital Stations of the Cross procession on Good Friday, or a televised Easter mass. Both the Catholic and Protestant churches are greatly expanding their online presence, and Easter will be no exception. There is one caveat, however: Services must be followed live.

Things are very different for Muslims. Islam dictates that nothing may come between the imam and the faithful during Friday prayers — not even a river or a thick wall. Therefore, says Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, live broadcasts of Friday prayers are not an option. That means mosques will remain closed and Friday prayers canceled until the coronavirus crisis is over.

Instead, the faithful must now pray at home, an activity that scholars at Al-Azhar University in Egypt — the most important religious school in Sunni Islam — say is not without precedent: "In the Sunna, there were some nights in which the prophet instructed the faithful to pray at home because the situation made community prayer at the mosque impossible," as the university's secretary general, Sheikh Khaled Omran, recently stated in an interview with German public broadcaster ARD.

Though Muslims have to forego Friday prayers, they can still pursue other aspects of religious life online. "Sermons are being posted to YouTube to offer solace and inform the faithful of the latest coronavirus developments. Focus has been shifted online because it has become impossible to speak to one another face to face," as Odette Yilmaz, chairwoman of the Liberal Islam Federation (LIB), told German national broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

Watching one's health during Ramadan

But what will happen during the holy month of Ramadan, in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset? It is scheduled to begin on the evening of April 23, a time at which strict rules enforcing social distancing will still be in place. That will make gathering with family to break the fast at the end of each day impossible. For Yilmaz, the challenges presented by this new situation will be more of a personal than a religious nature and severely curtail the sense of community.

Another problem facing Muslims is that of fasting during a pandemic. When people don't drink or eat, their bodies become weaker and thus more susceptible to illness and infection. Scholars at Al-Azhar University have given that fact consideration, too, and have concluded that, despite a ban on religous gatherings, people should still fast as the Ramadan ritual had no link to the coronavirus.

Read more: Coronavirus: Practicing Islam amid pandemic

Celebrating Passover alone?

Yet, not all religions are so flexible. In mid-March, Israel's Supreme Court struck down calls to postpone the Jewish observance of Passover because of the coronavirus. In its ruling, the court said it did not have the authority to declare a leap year and add an extra month to the calendar.

For many Jews, Passover — which commemorates god's delivery of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery — is the holiest religious celebration of the year.

This year, Passover began on the evening of April 8, and will last until April 16. Normally, many people around the world would travel to be with family and celebrate in large groups. That is also the case in Germany, which is home to some 100,000 Jews.

Jews in Jerusalem burning bread to mark the start of Passover
Jews in Jerusalem burning bread to mark the start of PassoverImage: picture-alliance/dpa/I. Yefimovich

Matzah by mail

But what in life is normal these days? In Germany, the Central Welfare Office of Jews and the Central Council of Jews have joined up to make it possible for the faithful to celebrate at home in isolation. For instance, the ingredients required for the ritual start of traditional Seder meals — such as Matzah and Kiddush wine — can be ordered via parcel delivery, helping those who don't have easy access to kosher foods.

Read more: Coronavirus underscores urgency to bridge digital divide

And these days, digital tools are also proving to be a blessing for Jews, who can follow religious services online and hold video chats with family and friends — allowing them to connect with others remotely. It must be said, however, that this is not something that is to be taken for granted, for the use of electricity is strictly forbidden on the Sabbath and on religious holidays.

A clever workaround

But the coronavirus opened the door to an exception in that regard when Orthodox rabbis in Israel recently determined that the use of video conferencing equipment will be allowed due to the exceptional circumstances brought on by the current fight against the infectious pandemic. The rabbis declared that the technology was important in helping the faithful fulfill their religious obligations. They also said it was vital for strengthening generational ties between children and their grandparents, as well as staving off depression and sadness among older Jews.

Here, too, a caveat: The rabbis made clear that people planning to use computers or smartphones over the holiday should turn them on and switch to the right program before Passover begins, for it is still strictly forbidden for Jews to actually operate such tools on religious holidays.

Restricted Easter in Jerusalem

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