Coronavirus and religion – update 26 March

By Tim Wyatt, 26 March 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to dominate world headlines, here are the latest religion news stories:

The Pope, Vatican City and Roman Catholics:

  • Yesterday, Christians around the globe paused at midday to say the Lord’s Prayer. The initiative was started by Pope Francis and picked up by many other denominations, including the Church of England. Yesterday also marked the Feast of the Annunciation, when Christians celebrate the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary to tell her she will become pregnant with God’s son.
  • Earlier, the Pope had livestreamed a mass from the chapel of his apartment in the Vatican, where he warned believers not to fall into the “evil” of self-pity or endlessly complain about things.
  • Several people who live in the Vatican, a tiny city-state of 1,000 people squeezed into 110 acres, have tested positive for Covid-19, including a clergyman who has lived inside the same house as Pope Francis for years and has been taken to hospital. Francis was tested yesterday and does not have the disease.  However, there is growing pressure on the Vatican, which is a nation independent from Italy, to shut its offices and allow more staff to work from home. Rules which have been in place across Italy for weeks.  Italy’s Roman Catholic Church has said more than 50 of its priests have so far died of the coronavirus, mostly older clerics from the north of the country which has been hit hardest by the pandemic. There has also been an outbreak in a nursing home for elderly nuns in Rome.
  • In Australia, the Roman Catholic Church has announced its churches must suspend all masses and other services, but said believers who still wanted to confess their sins to a priest could be offered some kind of “drive-by” service, as long as rules on social distancing were kept.UK
  • Britain’s United Synagogue network has prepared a “seder in a box” for Jews who will be unable to hold the communal meal during Passover, on 9 April. The synagogue is also planning a Shabbat service on Friday at a synagogue in north London which will then be live streamed to thousands online.GLOBAL
  • Donald Trump has said he wants to lift the lockdown across America in time for “packed churches” on Easter Sunday (which falls this year on 12 April, a little over a fortnight away), but this has been criticised by several leading Christian figures and many denominations have already told their churches to stay shut much longer.
  • A Louisiana pastor is defying an order from the governor barring gatherings of 50 people or more and continued to draw about 1,000 people to his megachurch Sunday services. Tony Spell told CNN he believed the pandemic was “politically motivated” and said it was unfair to shut down churches while shops could remain open.
  • A church in Arkansas has become a new hotspot for Covid-19, after 34 people who attended a children’s event in early March before such gatherings were barred have become infected. Among those with the coronavirus at the First Assembly of God church in Greers Ferry were the pastor and his wife.
  • With mosques around the world largely closed for Friday prayers, Muslims in some regions have begun praying on their balconies and roofs at the same time. A video of communal prayer in Tangier, Morocco, has gone viral.
  • In Romania, a video has emerged of Orthodox priests distributing communion to worshippers via a shared spoon on Sunday, weeks after the church’s hierarchy had recommended the congregation to bring their own spoons. Subsequently, all church services have been suspended.
  • A megachurch pastor in Argentina is being investigated after appearing to try to sell an alcohol hand gel to his churchgoers which could “overcome the coronavirus” for the equivalent of £13 each. Héctor Giménez can be seen in a video offering 12 of the gels during a service at his Temple of Waves of Love and Peace in Buenos Aires to anyone who would donate 1,000 pesos. Several other televangelists, including the convicted fraudster Jim Bakker, are being sued for offering similarly fake virus cures.
  • And finally, the apocalyptic times have prompted an Israeli man to return a 2,000-year-old Roman artefact he stole 15 years ago. The 30-year-old, who wishes to remain anonymous, said he stole a catapult bolt stone used as a missile during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD70 from a display in a national park when he was a teenager. “The time has come to clear my conscience,” the man said in a statement released by the park. “It feels that the end of the world is near.”

Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, there is other important religious news:

  • In Afghanistan, an attack by gunmen and suicide bombers on a Sikh temple in Kabul has killed at least 25 people. It took security forces hours to end the siege on Wednesday, which took place while the gurdwara was full of worshippers. The attack has been claimed by the so-called Islamic State, which earlier this month also murdered more than 30 people at a rally in Kabul who were all from another religious minority in Afghanistan, the Shia Hazara community. The terrorist group espouses an extremist brand of Sunni Islam and considers all other faiths, including other branches of Islam, to be heretics.
  • Brenton Tarrant, who was due to go on trial charged with murdering 51 people during last year’s New Zealand mosque shootings, has made a surprise change of plea. The 29-year-old white supremacist had initially denied charges of murder, attempted murder and terrorism, and was due to go on trial in June. But earlier today he switched his plea to guilty. He will be sentenced later, although preparations for the hearings have been complicated by the coronavirus lockdown.