By Tim Wyatt, 30 March 2020
Here are the latest religious news stories from across Britain and around the world.
- The coronavirus continues to take its toll on faith communities. A popular rabbi from north London, Neil Kraft, has died from Covid-19 just a few weeks before he was due to retire. It has been reported he had an underlying health problem.
- Meanwhile, police were called to the Stamford Hill neighbourhood in North London after reports that some ultra-Orthodox Jews there were holding prayer meetings outdoors. All synagogues have been closed during the lockdown, but the Metropolitan police has confirmed that officers have spoken to people within the community to reinforce the rules on social distancing. This has been echoed by both the Shomrim, a local Jewish volunteer patrol group, and Hatzalah, the Jewish emergency medical service.
- Passover, one of the most important Jewish festivals of the year, begins this year on 8 April. Normally, Jews across the world celebrate by sharing seder meals in their homes with friends and family and retelling the story of the people of Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt. This year, special provisions are being made to facilitate this unusual Pesach, including Orthodox rabbis permitting Zoom calls, when normally use of electricity is banned; and London’s Jewish religious court relaxing some rules on kosher food products for those self-isolating.
- In Israel, the senior ultra-Orthodox rabbi has ordered all synagogues closed and, for the first time in history, prayers held only in private. A few weeks earlier, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky defied the government to keep his community’s schools open.
- The Church of England has published a series of reflections on how to cope with anxiety and loneliness and protect good mental health during the pandemic. The lockdown has also prompted a renewal of interest in the tradition of hermits and anchorites, monks and nuns who voluntarily shut themselves away in cells for years to devote their lives to prayer. The most famous English anchoress is Julian of Norwich, a 14thcentury mystic, who witnessed the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt.
- MPs have been joined by The Sun in calling for Britain’s Sunday trading laws to be relaxed during the coronavirus crisis to allow for more time to buy food and supplies. Currently, larger shops can only open for six hours on Sundays.
- Pope Francis delivered the famous Urbi et Orbi (To the city and the world) address and blessing in an empty St Peter’s Square. The event is normally held only at Easter, Christmas and other significant occasions such as the election of a new pope. During the hour-long broadcast, which was seen by millions on television, the pontiff prayed with the 16th-century “Miraculous Crucifix”, a wooden cross kept in the Church of St Marcellus and said to have protected Rome from the plague in 1522.
- Easter, the most important Christian festival, is also having to be extensively reimagined because of the pandemic. Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, begins next Sunday. However, many of the usual rituals and services, including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday processions and vigils cannot be held and churches are instead preparing live streams and video services for the faithful cooped up at home.
- Major religious sites which are normally packed with pilgrims and tourists have fallen silent for the first time in centuries. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, said to mark the site of Jesus’s resurrection, shut suddenly last week. At the Western Wall, where normally thousands of Jews come to pray each day, yellow tape is marking out two-metre distancing for those who remain.
- Prince Charles, 71, is now out of self-isolation after testing positive for the Coronavirus. A palace official said the prince was in good health and was following the government’s restrictions. His wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, does not have the virus and is also self-isolating.
- In the United States, Donald Trump has now abandoned his plan of relaxing America’s lockdown in a few weeks to allow “packed churches” over Easter, following a backlash from church leaders and more grim warnings from health experts.
- Hundreds of people crowded into a megachurch in Louisiana, despite Covid-19 already spreading quickly across the state. The father of the pastor at the Life Tabernacle insisted they maintained the freedom of assembly and were not breaking any laws.
- In Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has played down the threat of the coronavirus, churches continue to be permitted to remain open as an “essential activity”. Many, however, have shut voluntarily, including Roman Catholic churches. Some among Brazil’s growing and influential evangelical community have resisted pressure to suspend public worship.
- In Russia, large numbers of people have continued attending services at Orthodox churches even after the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow urged them to shut their doors. In other countries some are continuing to offer communion via a shared spoon despite strict warnings about spreading the virus.
- A Sikh preacher, Baldev Singh, is believed to have been a “super-spreader” of Covid-19 after he returned from Italy and ignored the self-isolation rules. He has since died. The 70-year-old continued to travel across India, and attended a large religious gathering, before falling ill. Some Sikh journalists and advocacy groups have disputed this, however, claiming airport staff did not tell him to self-isolate and insisted Mr Singh was being blamed to deflect attention from the government’s failures. Fifteen villages and 40,000 people in the state of Punjab have now been sealed by the authorities to try to contain the outbreak that has been linked to the preacher.
In other non-coronavirus news:
- The billionaire oligarch and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich has provided funding for a new project by the RAF museum to collect stories of Jewish air force heroes from the Second World War. About 20,000 British Jews (about six per cent of the total community at the time) joined the RAF during the war, at rates greater than that of the general population.
- A Christian sect in an indigenous village in Panama has been accused of murdering a woman and six children during a violent attempted exorcism. Dozens of other villagers were also tied up and beaten with machetes and Bibles during the ritualistic violence. Panama is a mainly a Roman Catholic country with a growing evangelical community following decades of overseas missionary work, but the locals say the New Light of God, sect which took over the village, was run by a domineering family that forcibly removed the priests at the local church.