As governments around the world have imposed lockdowns and implemented social distancing measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, important religious holidays taking place in April and May 2020 have been celebrated in unusual ways.
Key rituals and moments of prayer are being experienced at home as religious communities turn to digital platforms like Zoom and Skype in order to hold Passover Seders, iftar meals and meditation sessions for Buddhists during Vesak.
Muslim communities will be celebrating the festival of Eid al-Fitr this weekend, marking the end of Islam’s holiest month. Ramadan, a period of reflection and sacrifice, is equally about community – spending time with friends and family and providing for those in need.
Worshippers usually gather for congregational prayers and family and friends break each day’s fast together during iftar meals, sometimes in large groups at the local Mosque. The pandemic has affected most of these traditions.
Social distancing – an “act of love and protection”
Although many of the collective aspects of Ramadan have been cancelled this year, KAICIID Fellow Heba Salah, from Egypt, refers to Zoom as “our hero” during this time of quarantine.
Salah has used the online platform to connect with a close group of friends in order to keep the sense of community during Ramadan rituals. “It is the first Ramadan since many years to be at home with family 24/7. This online meeting with friends has made the four of us a bit emotional”, she said.
She admits that, at times, the changes to Ramadan rituals have been tough. “I can’t deny that my heart is heavy, especially if it doesn’t work out for us to meet in Eid prayer. However, religion gives precedence to humanity’s safety over any other thing.”
Salah says that social distancing has taught her and others to show love for friends and family in practical ways, teaching them “new levels of love” since “agreeing not to meet or gather family members itself is an act of love and protection.”
“A new dimension to spirituality”
Tarafa Baghajati, co-chair of the Platform of Christian and Muslims in Vienna and member of the KAICIID-supported Muslim Jewish Leadership Council, also believes this year’s Ramadan celebrations have presented new opportunities and challenges for families.
As the COVID-19 outbreak widened, Baghajati posted a series of videos to his Facebook page and YouTube channel, informing his 15,000 followers about how to spend the month of Ramadan during a time of uncertainty. Baghajati has also posted excerpts from his Friday prayer sermons to his followers as lockdowns have continued.
“There are a lot of online initiatives to help with Quran lessons and theology lessons on Zoom and other platforms,” said Baghajati. “These are obviously very important right now, but they are not replacing the real spirituality Muslims get normally through meeting in their communities and Jummah [Friday prayers].”
“At the same time, the lockdown is spirituality within parents and their children,” he continued. “This could give us a new dimension to the spirituality of religion and communication within the family. Through this crisis there could be some advantages for us in discovering new and important matters in our life.”
“The important thing is to be together”
Like Salah and Baghajati, other faith actors across the globe are adjusting to the virus in creative, new ways.
In April, the Yazidi community cancelled their traditional new year’s festival, asking worshippers to stay at home and celebrate with immediate family members. The order marked a significant change, as thousands of Yazidis typically celebrate Çarşema Sor by gathering at the holy shrine of Lalesh in northern Iraq. This year, rituals such as colouring eggs, praying and lighting candles were done at home or virtually with friends and family.
Facing similar challenges, Buddhist temples reached out to followers through targeted social media campaigns during Vesak, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha. Using #WesakatHome, Buddhists were encouraged to post photos of their daily rituals as a means of staying connected during quarantine. Temples also offered online meditation sessions and livestreamed cooking classes so that worshippers could prepare traditional meals together.
In Brazil, KAICIID Fellow Rabbi Guershon Kwasniewski, led his synagogue’s first ever virtual Seder dinner in honor of Passover or “Pessach”. Synagogue members and staff participated together through Zoom, while non-members were able to watch a livestream via Facebook.
According to Rabbi Kwasniewski, attendees quickly adapted to the realities of attending a virtual celebration. “At first it was difficult to ask people to close the microphones, everyone wanted to talk, greet each other. People really wanted to meet, see and talk to each other. The important thing beyond the content was to be together.”
Rabbi Kwasniewski’s synagogue has developed a range of digital activities during COVID-19, including live broadcasts of religious services, a virtual commemoration of Holocaust Day, special prayers and online Torah classes.
“The idea is to give cultural elements to members and non-members who can find Jewish content to continue nurturing their cultural and spiritual lives,” Rabbi Kwasniewski explained.
“Everything requires a relationship with people”
In New York, Dr Nicolas Andre Kazarian, Ecumenical Officer, Inter-Orthodox Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, similarly celebrated Easter holidays online.
“I have a small parish in south Manhattan, we don’t do any livestreams of services, but many of my fellow clergy used Facebook or YouTube to livestream events during Easter,” Kazarian said. “What we have been doing is reproducing the spiritual experience of being in church while staying at home.”
Kazarian’s parish offered worshippers links to ten different options for virtual services at other churches so they could join their services on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.
“Some people are taking full part in the service – they participate at home by lighting candles, chanting, making the sign of the cross,” Kazarian said. “They are even reproducing processions in this virtual environment by trying to open up their homes to the sacred space of the church. We have a strong relationship with iconography in the Greek orthodox church, so I have seen people having their screens open and putting icons and candles next to it.”
Around the world, churches have also gotten creative with other important elements of Easter services – offering “drive up” blessings for Easter baskets or communion so that parishioners can stay safely isolated in their cars, and sprinkling holy water according to social distancing guidelines.
While Kazarian acknowledges that creativity and digital platforms can help ordinary people at a time when many places of worship are closed, he knows they would also like to return to normality. “There’s a real thirst and desire among our faithful to go back to church as soon as possible. As we are a sacramental church, to participate in the receiving of holy communion, baptisms and weddings, all of these have to happen in person.”
He continued: “Although the use of virtual places is good as a temporary solution, it will not become a sustainable solution because of the physical engagement of the life of the church. While Zoom can do Bible studies, almost everything requires a relationship with people.”