A test of faith: how organised religions adapt in the age of distancing

As the Coronavirus pandemic is bringing about new normals to all aspects of life, individuals and communities struggle to adjust. Organised religions are no exception. Physical distancing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 mean religious practices need to change.

Islam: A test from Allah

“Some Muslims weep when they hear the adhan (the Islamic call to prayer). They feel hurt that they cannot attend prayers at the mosque–the house of Allah–as they used to every Friday. This situation is a test of faith, so they need to pray at home.”

Hayiddin, the caretaker of Haroon Mosque, performs the adhan call to prayer.

Hayiddin, the caretaker of Haroon Mosque on Charoen Krung Road, explained that believers now have to practice daily prayers at home instead of at mosques. He suggested that Muslims should see the viral outbreak as a test of faith. To get over the regret of not attending the house of God, Muslims should adopt the perspective that this is an opportunity to pray together and strengthen familial bonds.

The Sheikhul Islam of Thailand announced on 18 March 2020 to suspend mass gatherings and perform prayers at home. Imams, caretakers, and the mosque committees may call the adhan and perform the prayers at mosques, with a maximum number of five people, and keep the safe distance from each other.

Haroon Mosque is empty as Muslims are ordered to pray at home.

As for the upcoming Ramadan, starting from 23 April, Thai Muslims have to wait for a guideline to adjust the event.

“Principally, there will be no mass gatherings. It is, however, encouraged to aid the communities by giving food, and will continue throughout the fasting month,” said Hayiddin.

Staff cleans the carpet in Haroon’s prayer room as a measure to prevent the COVID-19 virus.
Buddhism: Orderly meals for monks

Temples and organisations of Buddhism, practiced by over 90% of the population in Thailand, modify their rituals and worships as each one can afford.

Housing over 2,000 monks, Wat Dhammakaya is one of the largest, most powerful temples in Thailand. Phra Maha Nopporn Punyachayo, assistant director of the temple’s communications office, said that the temple assigned a special team to oversee the safety measures. The team set up checkpoints at the entrances, checking temperature, and providing hand sanitisers for followers.

Temperature checkpoint at the entrance of a Dhammakaya building. Staff are wearing face shields produced by the temple.

Attendees of congregations must keep a distance of 2-3 metres from each other. They have to use personal seats instead of the ones previously provided by the temple. Common areas are cleaned every two hours. The temple also invited epidemiologists to offer consultants.

Dhammakaya monks stand in spacing rows before receiving food offering.

“We changed the ritual of food offerings, cancelling the usual method of monks grouping in circles. One monk will receive the offering from the laypeople, keeping a distance of 5 metres during the chant. Then all other monks will queue up to receive food individually. Kitchen staff take extra hygiene measures; each set of food has plastic wrap.”

Dhammakaya has an online television channel and is developing a mobile application to facilitate sermon deliveries to followers.

Food comes in set, each wrapped in plastic to prevent the virus.

Dhammakaya has cancelled annual mass gatherings, such as summer ordination, mass meditation, and Visakha Bucha ceremony.

“We produce face shields and masks to donate to neighbouring communities. We are also about to donate alcohol-based hand sanitisers and face shields to the nearby Thammasat Hospital,” said Phra Maha Nopporn.

Meanwhile, around 60 monks and novices at the smaller Wat Maha Pruettharam maintain activities as usual, with some adjustment. They must wear face masks during alms collecting and eat separately at each one’s living quarters. During the daily chants, they have to sit apart to reduce health risks.

Phra Ratchawitcharaporn, the abbot of Wat Maha Pruettharam.

“We have called off all major events,” said Phra Ratchawitcharaporn, the abbot of Wat Maha Pruettharam.

“Laypeople, please stay calm and avoid gatherings.”

Catholic: Love keeps us close

Father Phonchai Singsa, the assistant abbot of Saint Anna Cathedral and Communication Director of the Diocese of Nakhon Sawan, said that the catholic church is opting for alternative ways to perform liturgy. 

The priests offer the Masses at churches while Catholics join through live streaming videos. Sacrament of Penance is moved to open space, while participants wear masks and keep a safe distance.

The church advised postponing any sacrament, such as matrimony and holy orders, if possible. For rites that cannot set the date like the funeral mass, the cathedral will carry out according to the Provincial health measure announcement. 

Catholic church live streams the service while the faithful attends through Youtube.

Participants will need to give their address, phone numbers, and travel history. They must wear masks and use the provided hand sanitiser, and keep a reasonable distance from others. The service should be short and keep only the essence.

Photo courtesy of Saint Anna Cathedral of the Diocese of Nakhon Sawan

For the Holy Week and Easter during 8-16 April, the priests did not hold the Vigil at the cathedral. Instead, the Catholics were to attend an online Mass. They set an altar in front of their houses, where the priests would travel and deliver the Eucharist. The cathedral also donated supplies bags to every family.

In this trying time, physical distancing is a necessity for everyone’s safety. Love and faith, on the other hand, know no distance.

About the author

Thanapong Kengpaiboon
Eat, read, sleep, try to write from time to time.


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