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Virus forces religions to improvise, isolate for holidays

Virus forces religions to improvise, isolate for holidays

SILVER SPRING, Md. — The global pandemic is upending the season’s major religious holidays, forcing leaders and practitioners across the spectrum to improvise. They’re having to finding new ways to live out their beliefs in a time of social distancing and empty houses of worship.

“One hundred years ago during the Spanish Influenza, congregations also cancelled (services) and quarantined. Now, COVID-19 imposes the necessity of social distancing, which is an anti-congregational, isolating imperative,” said Robert Franklin, a theology professor at Emory University and former president of Morehouse College. “However, all of our traditions aim for a sense of right relationship with the holy.”

That singular goal can connect and unite different faiths, Franklin added: “Rituals may divide, but righteous intent unites and elevates us all.”

The holidays range from the holiest week on the calendar for Christians to the Passover meal that symbolizes the Israelites’ journey out of bondage in Egypt. Over the next month, Hindus and Sikhs will also celebrate a new year and anniversary and Muslims will begin a month of introspection and sacrifice during Ramadan.

For Christians, Holy Week starts this weekend with Palm Sunday and culminates April 12 with Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection that is the faith’s most joyous day of the year. That joy will take a smaller shape this year, as Christian pastors preach to empty pews but share their services online and extended families will reunite digitally rather than at festive Easter dinners.

Jewish communities where the important holiday of Passover is celebrated with a traditional meal known as a seder are already adapting their traditional rhythm of extended families dining and observing together. Some will be held virtually, and others will be much smaller.

“On this Passover, when so many are separated from one another at a traditional time of being together, we reach out to one another with renewed love and compassion,” the American Jewish Committee wrote in its supplement to the Passover prayer book known as the Haggadah.

Hindus are in the midst of a nine-day celebration called Chaitra Navaratri that began in March with what many consider the new year and will culminate April 2 with the festival of Ramanavami. Normally Hindis would be preparing special foods and performing special prayers at temple. But in India and elsewhere, temples are empty while celebrations are held at home and worship services live-streamed.

Across the world, many Muslims are praying for the coronavirus cloud to lift before the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in late April. Ramadan is a time for fasting, worship, introspection, charity and empathy. Ordinarily, it’s also a time for community and gatherings as families and friends break their fast together and worshippers fill mosques.

Already the outbreak has disrupted Islamic worship with closures of mosques and many services or sermons moving online.

The Sikh holiday of Vaisakhi celebrated April 14 marks the day the religion took on its current form in 1699. Normally it is a time of festival and special services. But like the others, practitioners are relegated to home worship and livestreaming.

Dr. Kulwant Dhaliwal, former president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, in Oak Creek, said if the situation is unchanged later in April, “you have to just do it” and follow the orders. “Like everything, life is not normal right now. We could always celebrate later on.”


Associated Press reporters David Crary, Mariam Fam, Elana Schor and Luis Andres Henao contributed to this report.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.


Gary Fields, The Associated Press