The spread of the coronavirus has forced several British mosques to take the “extraordinary step” of closing their doors to worshippers.
Hujjat and Hyderi jamaats, both in the London area, are now livestreaming services to their congregants, as well as offering other aspects of their programming online.
A statement posted on the website for both communities stated that the decision had “not been made lightly” but with an “abundance of caution” and consideration for the “most vulnerable in our community”.
Eleven mosques in the UK come under the umbrella of the World Federation of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Communities (KSIMC). A number of those, including two in London and one in Birmingham, have taken the unprecedented step of suspending all services.
Overall, most of Britain’s religious denominations are urging followers to observe hygiene standards recommended by the government and to stay away if they have returned from affected areas or are displaying symptoms of the virus.
This is particularly pertinent for members of KSIMC, according to its secretary-general, Shan E Abbas Hassam, who told BBC Radio West Midlands that the mosques had decided to act as a significant number of congregants had recently returned from pilgrimages to Iran which has reported thousands of cases and more than 100 deaths in recent weeks.
He said: “The decision was made by the mosque [in Birmingham], and … by our centres in London as well, simply because we felt we were a more vulnerable group. We had pilgrims coming back from Iran and Iraq.
“We had one case within our community in London and the feeling was because we are used by elderly people and a lot of young people, we have a lot of diverse backgrounds, we thought it was better to be safe than to be sorry so we took a precautionary measure to suspend all programmes for the intervening period.”
Similar measures have been taken by the World Federation communities in Toronto, Canada, and Mombasa, Kenya, according to Mr Hassam, who said the mosques were running online alternatives for followers.
He admitted that the move would be particularly hard for elderly people, many of whom attend the mosques “almost on a daily basis”, but that the decision had been taken in their best interests.
Members of the various centres have recently returned from pilgrimages to religious sites in the affected areas.
“We have people coming back from there, potential carriers,” Mr Hassam said. “That’s why we think the issue is a bit more acute for us than it would be maybe for other faith organisations.”
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has issued extensive advice about the virus on its website in accordance with Public Health England and the British Islamic Medical Association.
The MCB told the Religion Media Centre that its advice was in line with the government’s, which at present was not restricting religious gatherings. Nevertheless, communities were being urged to follow standard hygiene best practice, while also planning for a potential restriction at a later date. This may involve a growing emphasis on livestreaming, which many mosques do already.
Many synagogues within the Reform branch of Judaism also already incorporate online services which are “available to everyone regardless of their circumstances”, according to a spokesman.
Transmitting Friday evening and Saturday services to people’s homes is not an option for adherents of Orthodox Judaism, which does not permit the use of electrical equipment on the Sabbath. However, other measures are being adopted in line with government recommendations.
Updated guidance from the United Synagogue has urged worshippers to refrain from kissing religious items as part of their rituals.
It states: “Given that the virus can be transferred by hand, we suggest members refrain from shaking hands and/or kissing when greeting. Following this, members should refrain from kissing communal siddurim and chumashim and sifrei Torah [all religious texts] until the threat is over.”
Rajnish Kashyap, director of Hindu Council UK, said temples had made worshippers “fully aware” of the situation, following government guidelines on hygiene standards and recommendations to call 111 rather than attending hospital if experiencing symptoms.
Keeping a close eye on government advice, Mr Kashyap said that temples were planning to “scale back” their celebrations for this year’s Holi Festival. A national holiday in India, the festival – which sees young and old celebrate by dousing each other in multi-coloured water and powder – is set to be marked at most temples next weekend.
“There are difficult questions we need to take into account,” said Mr Kashyap. Most celebrations, he added, would now be more symbolic and on a smaller scale. “There are no plans to cancel Holi festival celebrations, but a lot of temples are considering discouraging large-scale gatherings at the moment.”
Baldev Singh Bains, assistant secretary general of Sikh Council UK, said all gurdwaras are displaying NHS guidance and taking more measures to ensure cleanliness. He said: “We share the concerns about people’s wellbeing and the community is playing its part to minimise panic as well as taking preventative measures”.
Shan E Abbas Hassam, secretary-general, the World Federation of KSIMC, firstname.lastname@example.org, 020 8954 9881
Zainab Gulamali, public affairs manager, Muslim Council of Britain, Zainab.Gulamali@mcb.org.uk, 07707 580 654 and 0845 26 26 786
Richard Verber, director of communications, the United Synagogue, Rverber@theus.org.uk, 07741 906 025
Alex Fenton, director of public affairs to Rabbi Janner-Klausner (Reform Judaism,), AFenton@rjuk.org