Praying in a pandemic: Communal worship hard to resist for some

For Samuel Heilman, a visit to his local synagogue – in New Rochelle, New York in the United States – has long been part of his daily routine.

As an Orthodox Jew, Heilman considers the synagogue more than just his place of worship. It’s also a house of assembly and a house of study.

As nations across the world implement social distancing measures, ban large gatherings and close all non-essential businesses and places to slow the spread of the COVID-19 disease, Heilman is among the millions of worshippers who can no longer visit religious sites or participate in communal prayer.

A 73-year-old distinguished professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Queens College, City University of New York, Heilman spoke to Al Jazeera while in self-isolation at home. He misses going to the synagogue and being part of communal rituals, like silent prayer and reading passages of the Torah.

“When you hear many voices singing prayer, you find your voice in the voice of others. That has the capacity to make you feel part of a body of worshipers,” he said.

“What religion offers to the solitary individual is that he or she is part of something greater than themselves. What could more demonstrate that than being with a group of other people?

“We are creatures that need to not be alone. And worship with other people has the capacity to lift one above themselves.”

Some of the world’s largest and most historic religious sites are shutting their doors for the first time.

In Europe, the Vatican remains closed, and mosques, churches, temples, synagogues and Sikh temples (gurdwaras) in the United Kingdom have begun shutting as the country catches up with mainland Europe in enforcing a stricter lockdown.

Thousands of Hindu pilgrims who perform daily rituals and visit temples in the Indian holy city of Varanasi are impacted by India’s recent nationwide curfew, as are the country’s Muslim, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist communities.

Places of worship remain shut in the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia, where a spike in cases was linked to a recent Muslim gathering.

Across Africa, religious gatherings are being banned and places of worship are closing, including in Nigeria and South Africa, as the continent braces itself for more cases.

It’s a similar picture in South America, as Colombia implements a quarantine and as some local religious leaders in Mexico close Catholic churches and temporarily ban public Mass.

In the Middle East, Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem has been closed, along with mosques in Egypt and Jordan, while in Syria, Friday prayers were cancelled and the doors shut at the Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the world.

Mosques in the Gulf region are not open, and Saudi Arabia is suspending prayers and banning entry to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

The annual Hajj pilgrimage, which usually brings millions to Islam’s holy sites and is set for July, could also be suspended.

‘We need to be very careful’
Hyuksoo Kwon is a pastor at the Jesus Hope Church, a Presbyterian place of worship in Seoul, South Korea.

His church has been closed for the past month.

“The church is not just offering prayer; it is a community space where people come and build a relationship together with Christ,” Kwon said.

“We run weekend services, there are smaller group meetings, and on Sundays we usually eat lunch together. This has all stopped, but this is a very infectious disease and with the knowledge that we have about how fast it spreads, we need to be very careful.”

Kwon says he is monitoring the situation and will look to reopen once schools do, and when the government downgrades the threat level.

For now, the church broadcasts weekly sessions online and uses digital services like Zoom for group meetings and lessons.

“People were initially shocked at the church closing, but many people have been surprised that they can still convey feelings and emotions through the new online channels,” Kwon said. “People seem to have adapted now.”

Professor Susan Visvanathan teaches sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India.

She said the risks posed by communal gatherings, where worshippers sit near to each other and there are religious rituals requiring close physical contact, are high.

“People going to worship are also travelling in a bus or a tram and will encounter other people,” she told Al Jazeera.

“The statistics of transmission is what we are interested in. How are children and old people beleaguered by this? And should we then put experiential spaces of religious ecstasy before the safety of old people and children?”

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