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Religion in conservative Mideast adapts to coronavirus

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In the Middle East, where the three main monotheistic faiths shape daily life, the coronavirus pandemic has seen religious leaders support constraints unthinkable just a few weeks ago.

Top Islamic clerics in the region and in majority-Muslim North Africa have endorsed the closure of mosques to avoid large gatherings where the risk of contamination could be high.

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The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, custodian of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — believed by Christians to house Christ’s tomb — has told congregations to receive communion in their hand, instead of on their tongue.

And Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, issued a decree ordering followers to keep their mobile phones on through Shabbat so they can receive urgent information about the COVID-19 disease.

Leading Muslim clerics have widely backed scientifically-based measures to contain the virus, notably by supporting crowd size restrictions through promotion of home prayer.

Authorities in the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain have halted prayers in mosques.

In Egypt, the most populous Arab country, religious authorities have ordered a two-week closure of mosques and churches and banned mass communal prayers.

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The government in Tunisia — where some worshippers have been praying in front of shuttered mosque doors — said messages from imams will be broadcast to reinforce essential health protections.

In Algeria, the azan, or call for prayer which the muezzin issues for the obligatory five daily Muslim prayers, has been modified. Muezzins are now encouraging worshippers to pray at home.

In Iran, authorities closed four key Shiite religious sites. The Islamic republic is one of the three countries hardest hit by the virus with an official death toll of more than 1,500 and over 20,600 confirmed cases.

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The pandemic re-ignited a long-standing dispute between the roles of science and religion in Iran, but supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei intervened in support of medical professionals, effectively closing the debate.

In Lebanon, the head of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement Hassan Nasrallah urged people to abide by government measures.

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“The virus can be defeated if everyone takes responsibility and plays their part,” he said, calling on people to come forward if they develop COVID-19 symptoms.

Some churches in Lebanon, a country home to 18 recognised religious sects including a large Christian community, have begun broadcasting the Sunday mass live on social media.

Israel has banned gatherings of more than 10 people, making it impossible for Jews to form the quorum of ten needed for prayer known as a miyan.

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But chief rabbinical authorities have decreed that following health ministry guidelines is a religious duty and authorised prayer at home.

Even while top clerics have largely backed containment strategies, resistence has continued among the region’s deeply religious and conservative population.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has urged citizens not to gather in large numbers for prayers, where the risk of contamination could be high.

But on Saturday tens of thousands turned out to commemorate a revered imam Musa al-Kadhim, who died in 799 in the custody of Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid.

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That followed a call from influential cleric Moqtada Sadr for his followers to take part in the pilgrimage, defying government advice.

The anniversary of the death normally attracts millions to the golden-domed mausoleum of Imam al-Kadhim in Baghdad.

Extremist voices in the region have dismissed guidance from health officials and leading religious authorities.

After Morocco closed mosques and announced a ban on all non-essential movements, outspoken Salafist preacher Abou Naim decried those moves as “apostasy”. He was arrested on terrorism charges.

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There has also been a proliferation of faith-based responses to the pandemic with no supporting medical evidence.

After the first case emerged last month in Lebanon, many Christians visited the tomb of St. Charbel, the country’s patron saint, and collected soil from the holy site, believing it would heal those infected.

And last week, a Christian priest flew over Beirut in a helicopter to “bless” the country.

Despite the decrees of top rabbis to follow medical guidelines, some Jewish leaders in Israel have offered alternative solutions to the pandemic.

Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Simcha Halevi Ashlag has encouraged people to drink the Mexican beer Corona, to fortify their prayers.

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“When we pray and drink an alcoholic drink, the prayers have more force,” he said in a video posted on social media earlier this month.

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