Easter, Ramadan and Passover become virtual holidays of renewal amid coronavirus

A man clears notes in Jerusalem's Old City on March 31, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - In this dark year of Covid-19, an influential group of rabbis in Israel ruled that Passover could be shared with extended family and friends - not in person but over Zoom.

Given the rigid restrictions among devout Jews about what's permitted on holy days, it was almost shocking. Plenty of other rabbis condemned the move.

But as Jews, Muslims and Christians enter one of the holiest times of the year, with Easter, Ramadan and Passover all celebrated this month, leaders of these religions with ancient roots find themselves giving thanks to the Internet. With roughly half the world locked down, keeping the holidays communal will be a struggle.

"Almost normal would still be a stretch," said Zainab Gulamali, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, where more than 4,300 people have died from the virus. "But we can do our best to host a remote Ramadan that is still spiritually uplifting."

With mosques in most of the world adhering to bans on large gatherings, even conservative imams are finding ways to stream prayers and sermons, she said.

At the epicentre of the disease in the US, viewers of Sunday masses on the website of the Archdiocese of New York went from 600 at the start of the epidemic to 26,000. More are expected on Palm Sunday and Easter, a spokesman said.


Religious leaders say the pandemic, however painfully, has breathed fresh meaning into these holidays, all rooted in hardship and renewal.

"The coronavirus reminds us that man's greatest enemy is death," said Robert Jeffress, one of the US's most influential evangelical pastors as head of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. "And next Sunday I will be reminding our congregation of the words of Jesus in John 11:25: 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he dies, will live again.'"

His megachurch, which normally attracts some 5,000 people every Sunday, was one of the last, he said, to halt services as large gatherings were banned to stem the virus's spread. Streams from the church's website have jumped to 200,000 from 40,000.

The virus has already shut down the holidays' usual celebrations. The famed public crucifixions in the Philippines have been called off, and a Passion Play in Mexico City that dates back to the 19th century will be held indoors with no spectators. In Jerusalem, normally-packed Christian events have been cancelled. The Western Wall, sacred to Jews, remains open, though visitors must remain at a distance from each other.

St. Peter's Square in Vatican City will be empty. The pope's traditional Easter address will be livestreamed - and no doubt the virus will be a central theme. Italy's death count from Covid-19, at more than 15,000, is the world's highest. The holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina are closed to pilgrimages. So are pilgrim destinations like Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, which attract many visitors from neighbouring Iran, hard hit by the virus.


Most mosques, synagogues and churches are and will be closed to the public during the holidays, though services and sermons will go on in empty rooms streamed to congregants local and beyond.

Some religious leaders also see their role in preventing the virus's spread during the holiday.

Rabbi Anchelle Perl of Chabad Mineola on Long Island issued a "Passover Eve Warning." "I am no Moses, but I can assure you, keeping social distancing, even at the expense of having limited people at the Seder table, is now one of the 10 commandments, at least for the time being," he wrote to worshipers.

'A Dungeon'

Not everyone is happy with virtual renewal.

"For us as Muslims, Ramadan this year will be desperate and gloomy," said Ali Hussein, 47, a shopkeeper in Baghdad. "We feel close to God when going to mosques, praying behind clerics. It will be like a dungeon this time."

And more than 9,600km away in the White House, President Trump mused at a press briefing about having to watch Easter services on a laptop. "It's sad," he said.

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