H1N1 virus puts brake on religious activities for Christians, Muslims

Published July 27, 2009

Canterbury, England
Fears about the spread of the H1N1 virus, once known as swine flu, are curtailing religious activities of both Christians and Muslims as they worship and express their faith, especially in Britain.Health authorities believe that the H1N1 flu pandemic is having a greater impact on Britain than on other countries in Europe, with 31 deaths from the sickness reported the week of July 20. They attribute this to Britain’s position as an international air communications and travel hub.Christians in Britain have had to introduce health measures at communion services and concerning the water some of them use to bless themselves on entry into churches.Leaders of the (Anglican) Church of England wrote on July 23 to bishops recommending the suspension of the sharing of the chalice at communion. The archbishops of Canterbury and York said the church’s worship needed to “take into account the interests of public health during the current phase of the swine flu pandemic.” The letter followed advice from the health department in Britain not to share “common vessels” for food or drink. The department reported that 100,000 suspected new cases of the flu had been reported in Britain over the past week, almost double the 55,000 new cases in the preceding period.The Muslim Council of Britain released guidelines to Muslims on its Web site (www.mcb.org.uk). It urged imams and mosque committee members to increase the awareness among the Muslim community about the dangers of using communal towels during cleansing ceremonies before worship.MCB spokesperson Murdaza Shibli told Ecumenical News International that the council,  “concurs with the advice of Saudi Health Authorities and the World Health Organization that the current pandemic strain of swine flu was more likely to be severe in certain groups of individuals – elderly, pregnant women, people with chronic disease and children.” He said that many of the 200,000 would-be pilgrims to Mecca would have to postpone their journeys this year.As a precaution against spreading the H1N1 virus, Arab health ministers in Cairo on July 22 announced plans to ban children under the age of 12, the elderly, and the chronically ill from attending the hajj – an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that is a pillar of faith for Muslims.About three million Muslim pilgrims from more than 160 countries travel to Mecca every year in one of the world’s largest religious gatherings. This year the hajj pilgrimage will take place in November, but many Muslims also visit Mecca during the holy month of Ramadan, which starts in August.Anglican clergy in the diocese of Chelmsford east of London have advised worshippers to empty all water stoups at the entry of churches, where people bless themselves with the Sign of the Cross, until the pandemic is over.”The water contained in stoups can easily become a source of infection and a means of rapidly spreading the virus,” the bishop of Chelmsford, John Gladwin, said in a message.While seeking to avoid panic, following reports that as many as 65,000 people could die from the pandemic, Christian and other religious leaders are telling worshippers that certain rituals will have to be abandoned for the time being.Many British Roman Catholic parishes have stopped offering communion wine at Mass following fears that sharing the chalice will further spread infection. In New Zealand, the Catholic Church has asked priests not to place communion wafers on the tongues of worshippers during the communion service.


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