In coronavirus pandemic, the faithful pray alone, but together in spirit

In the face of a potentially catastrophic pandemic, the hashtag #PrayTogether has circulated widely throughout the world of social media and beyond, even projected onto the world-famous statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. But the same pandemic is making the logistics of praying together — in one place, not cyberspace — complicated, or impossible. With no end to social distancing measures in sight, the coronavirus pandemic has forced religions centered on community to rethink the way they practice their faith and the role spiritual leaders play in daily life.

Like other sectors of society, both local and large-scale religious celebrations have been put on pause, even as billions of people prepare to celebrate Easter, Passover and Ramadan next month.

St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City — usually swarming with pilgrims — has been eerily quiet as Italy battles the worst outbreak outside of China, with over 41,000 total cases as of Thursday.

The Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Square on March 11, a day after it was closed to tourists. (Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images)

In Mecca — Islam’s holiest city — Saudi Arabia has suspended the holding of daily prayers and the weekly Friday prayers in the arena outside the walls of the Grand Mosque.

And on Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a primetime speech urging his 1.3 billion citizens to “avoid crowds and stay at home,” even as hundreds of thousands of Hindus prepare to travel to the northern state of Uttar Pradesh next week for a nine-day celebration of Ram, one of the religion’s most important gods.

“The cancellation of public celebrations is going to the heartstrings of all sectors of the faithful,” John Quaglione, deputy press secretary of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, told Yahoo News. The Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens and is home to 1.5 million Roman Catholics, has suspended all public church services “until further notice.”

“Weddings are being canceled, baptisms are being canceled. We have Communions being canceled.”

Celebrations of Easter Sunday by the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics will also be scaled back. The Vatican announced that its Holy Week and Easter services next month will be held without public participation — a move believed to be unprecedented in modern times.

“It’s going to definitely be different this year,” Quaglione said.

The pope’s weekly public audiences have been suspended but are being live-streamed by the Vatican.

Likewise, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the National Muslim Task Force on COVID-19 urged Muslims to self-quarantine and for religious counseling “and similar services” to move to the web.

“Moving these services to virtual platforms fulfills a communal need while limiting the possibility of harms occurring from the lack of social distancing,” the organizations said in a statement on Wednesday.

“I think it’s fair to say that every single Reform synagogue I know of has gone online,” Jeffrey Salkin, a Reform rabbi at Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and columnist for religionnews.com, told Yahoo News. “It’s almost as if the internet, and its associated apps and programs and platforms, has been a very effective dress rehearsal for a time of great emotional and spiritual need.”

With synagogues temporarily closed, Salkin has seen an uptick in followers as services and classes have moved to online platforms like Facebook and Zoom. But he wonders about the lasting damage this transition could have on religious communities.

“The question that I have, and that everyone has, is whether this will so transform the way we do things as to be not only transformative but in the long-run damaging,” Salkin said. “If people determine that the online world is meeting their needs, they will have less need for the in-person world. And religious communities thrive on people being together not virtually but physically.”

Social distancing also chips away at a core aspect of religious observance in every faith, the physical connection to sacred books, icons and foods.

In Jerusalem, Jews have been instructed to refrain from kissing the stones of the Western Wall. And in Madrid, Catholics were discouraged from partaking in the centuries-old tradition of kissing or touching the feet of the 17th-century statue of Jesus of Medinaceli.

“We are very tactile people,” Salkin explains. “We carry the Torah around, people kiss the Torah, people kiss their prayer books and kiss the Torah.”

Salkin points to the mezuzah, a small cylinder containing religious verses that is attached to doorposts and kissed when entering or leaving a home.

“In Israel, already people are saying, ‘Don’t do that,’” Salkin said.

A tourist looks at the nearly deserted Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, on March 12, after Israel imposed some of the world's tightest restrictions to contain the coronavirus. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

The measures are difficult but also crucial, as religious gatherings have proved to be a hotbed for coronavirus outbreaks. An Episcopal rector was the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Washington, D.C. — after he participated in services with about 550 people, shaking hands and distributing Communion to congregants. An Orthodox synagogue was also at the center of a “containment area” ordered in New Rochelle, N.Y. And in Malaysia, authorities have traced more than half of the nation’s COVID-19 cases to a mosque outside Kuala Lumpur.

Yet some have been slow to respond, or even downright negligent.

In Iran, which is facing the deadliest COVID-19 outbreak in the Middle East, videos began circulating of people licking the walls of religious shrines, in an effort to downplay the pandemic.

“While the city of Qom is the epicentre of #CoronaVirus in Iran, authorities refuse to close down religious shrines there,” Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and activist, tweeted on Feb. 29. “Videos of pro-regime people urging even their own children to lick the #CoronaVirus infested shrines are surfacing.”

Although the shrines in Qom were eventually closed, Alinejad tells Yahoo News the damage had already been done.

“International pressure forced the Islamic Republic to shut down the Religious centers in Iran,” Alinejad said via email. “I strongly believe that the decision was very late and already spread coronavirus across cities in Iran.

“This is a crime against health and human beings. Coronavirus has killed thousands in Iran but the tragedy is that it could have been stopped at an early stage.”

Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City after clerics shut the doors of the mosque and the Dome of the Rock in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus, March 20. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, in Baton Rouge, La., a pastor held a church service with hundreds of people on Tuesday night despite a state order banning public or private gatherings of more than 50 people.

“Keep going to church! Keep on worshiping God! ... The church is a hospital for the sick,” the pastor said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has suspended all services for the first time since a flu epidemic in 1957. Rachel Allred, a 24-year-old workplace manager who lives in New York City, took what she knew was a risk in flying home to be with her family near Salt Lake City.

“I was debating going back and forth whether it was safe for me to fly back. Ultimately I decided that if I got out last week early enough that it would be OK,” she said. “But it was a scary, scary thing.”

But LDS members have some advantages in facing the pandemic. “Church leaders have advised us for many years to be prepared,” said Rachel’s dad, Jerry, “and specifically to maintain a supply of fresh water and a basic supply of food and other essentials.” The church encourages members to keep three months’ worth of necessities on hand.

And members of the close-knit community look after one another. A magnitude 5.7 earthquake rocked the Salt Lake City area on Wednesday, causing minor damage but no deaths. “I received a text from a person from the church from the neighborhood who was assigned to look after my family asking if everything was OK,” Jerry Allred said. Then, within two hours, someone was at the Allred’s home to check on the family in person.

While Rachel wasn’t sure about her decision to come home at the time due to the risk, she says she feels “very fortunate to be home with my loved ones,” especially while the community battles not only COVID-19 but an earthquake as well.

And despite the chaotic situation, Jerry remains hopeful, saying, “We can face these challenges together, and as our community leaders, church leaders have told us, everything will work out. And I believe that it will.”