Religious leaders turn to tech to deliver God's word to millions isolated due to coronavirus pandemic
By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, March 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As coronavirus closes churches, synagogues and mosques worldwide, religious leaders are taking faith online to ensure God's word gets to the millions marooned by the pandemic.
Services are being streamed on Instagram, prayers posted by video link and timeless texts shared on cellphones to bring spiritual support to the hundreds of thousands of believers denied a place of worship.
"Because I am not physically close to you, it doesn't mean I can't be emotionally close to you," said Miles McPherson, a senior pastor at the Rock Church in San Diego, California, which moved to online streaming on Sunday.
"It's better when you are with somebody in a room … but the online services in one way give us opportunity to be with people more because we are with them in their pocket," he said holding a mobile phone during an online video interview.
With almost 219,000 infections and more than 8,900 deaths so far, the epidemic has stunned the world and drawn comparisons with traumas such as World War Two and the 1918 Spanish flu.
In Italy - home to a large and devout Catholic population - priests have turned to technology to support some of the communities worst hit by the rapid viral spread.
When news broke on Feb. 23 that all Masses in and around the northern city of Milan were to be suspended, priest Fabio Zanin came up with a new way to stay in touch with his flock.
Armed with a mobile phone and help from young parishioners, he set up an Instagram account and started streaming daily functions held behind closed doors on social media.
"We though it would only be for a few days," said Zanin, a Catholic priest from Cusano Milanino, a small town north of Italy's financial capital.
"In the meantime, the whole word has been turned upside down," the 28-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Zanin even asked parishioners to send in photos as they watched the Mass online, saying: "People need human contact".
The highly contagious respiratory disease that originated in China has pushed governments on every continent to impose draconian lockdowns, hitting sport, shopping, travel and faith.
From Japan to the United States, many religious groups have suspended services and moved faith online, trying out new ways to stay close to their communities, as holy sites and public spaces shut, changing the face of many world cities.
HOLY WATER AND TOILET PAPER
Churches have historically been a place of sanctuary in times of crisis and closures have caused disarray.
Last week, the Pope's vicar for the Rome archdiocese ordered churches in the Italian capital to shut their doors only to back peddle a day later, following complaints from some Catholics and a caution against "drastic measures" from the pontiff.
Besides broadcasting services, some have come up with novel initiatives to raise morale among those confined to home.
Jehovah's Witnesses have stopped their custom of knocking on doors and setting up stall at busy crossroads but congregants were still meeting in small home groups in countries where it was permitted, a spokesman said.
In Britain, where the Chief Rabbi has urged synagogues to suspend all activities, a London-based congregation called on members not to "let social distancing become social isolation".
"Whether you are in need of an extra loo (toilet) roll, some food dropped off or a listening ear to share your fears, let us be the planks for one another in the weeks ahead," Rabbi Elana Dellal of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue wrote in an online post.
U.S. Buddhist magazine Tricycle has published online meditations to help ease people's anxiety, while the St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, California, urged parishioners to put their enforced down time to good use.
"Now is a good time to read Cradle to Cradle and watch those documentaries I asked you to watch!" Reverend Cindy Evans Voorhees wrote in an email newsletter.
In Tbilisi, Georgia, the Orthodox Church - criticised for still serving worshippers bread from a shared spoon - organised a motorcade to bless the city streets and ward off the virus.
On Tuesday, priests holding icons rode on pick-up trucks sprinkling people and pavements from tanks of holy water.
"This will be another good event by the Church to bring peace and calm to people," said churchgoer Kote Svanadze.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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