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Jakarta Post

Religion in conservative Mideast adapts to coronavirus

  • Ben Simon

    Agence France-Presse

Jerusalem   /   Tue, March 24, 2020   /   07:07 am
Religion in conservative Mideast adapts to coronavirus Children sit in chairs next to ultra-Orthodox Jewish men praying at the nearly deserted Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, after Israel has imposed some of the world's tightest restrictions to contain COVID-19 coronavirus disease, in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. In the Middle East, where the three main monotheistic faiths shape daily life, the coronavirus pandemic has seen religious leaders support constraints unthinkable just a few weeks ago. (AFP/Emmanuel Dunand )

In the Middle East, where the three main monotheistic faiths shape daily life, the coronavirus pandemic has seen religious leaders support constraints unthinkable just a few weeks ago. 

Top Islamic clerics in the region and in Muslim-majority North Africa have endorsed the closure of mosques to avoid large gatherings where the risk of contamination could be high.  

The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, custodian of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- believed by Christians to house Christ's tomb -- has told congregations to receive communion in their hand, instead of on their tongue.

And Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, issued a decree ordering followers to keep their mobile phones on through the Shabbat day of rest so they can receive urgent information about the COVID-19 disease.


Praying at home 

Leading Muslim clerics have widely backed scientifically based measures to contain the virus, notably by supporting crowd size restrictions through calling for home prayers.  

Authorities in the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain have halted prayers in mosques. 

In Egypt, the most populous Arab country, religious authorities have ordered a two-week closure of mosques and churches and banned mass communal prayers.

The government in Tunisia -- where some worshippers have been praying in front of shuttered mosque doors -- said messages from imams will be broadcast to reinforce essential health protections. 

In Algeria, the azan, or call for prayer in mosques that the muezzin issues for the obligatory five daily Muslim prayers, has been modified. Muezzins are now encouraging worshippers to pray at home. 

In Iran, authorities have closed four key Shiite religious sites. The Islamic republic is one of the countries hardest hit by the virus with an official death toll of more than 1,600 and over 21,000 confirmed cases.

The pandemic re-ignited a long-standing dispute between the roles of science and religion in Iran, but supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei intervened in support of medical professionals, effectively closing the debate. 

In Lebanon, the head of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement Hassan Nasrallah urged people to abide by government measures. 

"The virus can be defeated if everyone takes responsibility and plays their part," he said, calling on people to come forward if they develop COVID-19 symptoms. 

Some churches in Lebanon, a country home to 18 recognized religious sects including a large Christian community, have begun broadcasting the Sunday mass live on social media.

Israel has banned gatherings of more than 10 people, making it impossible for Jews to form the quorum of ten needed for prayer known as a minyan.

But chief rabbinical authorities have decreed that following health ministry guidelines is a religious duty and authorized prayer at home.  



Even while top clerics have largely backed containment strategies, resistance has continued among the region's deeply religious and conservative population. 

Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has urged citizens not to gather in large numbers for prayers, where the risk of contamination could be high.

But on Saturday tens of thousands turned out to commemorate a revered imam, Musa al-Kadhim, who died in 799 in the custody of Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid.

That followed a call from influential cleric Moqtada Sadr for his followers to take part in the pilgrimage, defying government advice. 

The anniversary of the death normally attracts millions to the golden-domed mausoleum of Imam al-Kadhim in Baghdad. 


Extremism, superstition 

Extremist voices in the region have dismissed guidance from health officials and leading religious authorities. 

After Morocco closed mosques and announced a ban on all non-essential movements, outspoken Salafist preacher Abu Naim decried those moves as "apostasy". He was arrested on terrorism charges.

Groups of worshippers went out into the streets to pray in several Moroccan cities on Saturday night in defiance of the ban, local media reported. "God is the greatest, and only he can help us," they chanted.

There has also been a proliferation of faith-based responses to the pandemic with no supporting medical evidence. 

After the first case emerged last month in Lebanon, many Christians visited the tomb of St. Charbel, the country's patron saint, and collected soil from the holy site, believing it would heal those infected.

And last week, a Christian priest flew over Beirut in a helicopter to "bless" the country. 

Despite the decrees of top rabbis to follow medical guidelines, some Jewish leaders in Israel have offered alternative solutions to the pandemic. 

Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Simcha Halevi Ashlag has encouraged people to drink the Mexican beer Corona, to fortify their prayers. 

"When we pray and drink an alcoholic drink, the prayers have more force," he said in a video posted on social media earlier this month.