Coronavirus forces change to religious traditions in Lebanon

Christians and Muslims adapt to the threat of the virus that caused its first death in Lebanon on Tuesday

Suspending a nearly 500-year-old tradition, Maronite priests in Lebanon are now administering Holy Communion by placing the wafer into the hands of the faithful rather than straight on to the tongue.

As the outbreak of novel coronavirus hits Lebanon, with 52 infected and the first death reported on Tuesday, religious institutions in the diverse country of 18 recognised sects have taken steps to inform and protect worshippers.

Warning signs are now appearing at the entrances of churches and mosques. But in Beirut's up-market Gemmayzeh neighbourhood, the clergyman at St Maron Church is trying to reassure his congregation that changing Communion is a return to tradition, not a suspension of belief.

"It should be noted that this practice is ancient," read a sign on the door of St Maron Church.

The 1,600-year-old Maronite church – an Eastern Catholic denomination widely following by Lebanon's Christian community – abolished the tradition of taking communion wafers by hand in the 16th century. But today, "we are going back to our roots", says Bishop Joseph Nafaa.

The current changes are not only for communion. To curb the spread of Covid-19, as churchgoers arrive they are instructed to greet each other with their hand on their heart instead of touching hands.

Fonts of holy water have been emptied and in their place are dispensers of hand sanitiser.

Similar measures have been taken by Catholic churches across the world.

In a country where religion plays an important role in social life, Lebanese Maronites have largely complied with their church’s new instructions.

But there have been issues. In the small Mount Lebanon village of Ajaltoun, Mass had to be suspended on Sunday after some parishioners insisted on receiving communion in the usual way. Similar incidents have happened elsewhere but church officials insisted they were minor and infrequent.

"We must see the bigger picture," insists Fadi El Chaer, a 56-year-old dentist after he attended morning mass at St Maron Church on Tuesday morning. "If the Pope is OK with people taking the communion wafer by hand, why should we not do it?"

The measures are a precaution but they also come after two priests at one of Beirut's main Jesuit churches, just down the road from the St Maron Church, tested positive for the coronavirus.

Despite this, several churchgoers say they aren’t worried about the spread.


"We must not give in to panic. I couldn't care less about the coronavirus. It's just a cold that kills about 2 per cent of people," said Rony Feghani, another dentist who attended mass at St Maron.

Health officials say that Lebanon remains in a containment phase, but the spread of the virus has heightened anxiety in the small Mediterranean country, which is already suffering from the worst economic crisis in its history.

Amid the worry, World Health Organisation head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called the spread of fake news and misinformation more dangerous than the virus itself.

As schools, universities, public parks, bars and gyms remain shut, people are finding solace in religion.

Last weekend, Maronite priest Majdi Allawi took to the skies to bless the small Mediterranean country in an attempt to ward off Covid-19.

In a move that raised questions on social media, some of the faithful delivered a mixture of holy water and soil from the grave of Saint Charbel Makhlouf to Beirut's Rafik Hariri Hospital where the 52 infected patients are being treated.

While some questioned why doctors were allowing this, Pierre Abi Hanna, head of the infectious diseases department at the hospital, told The National that "we accommodate people's wishes as long as it does not hurt them".

Sunni and Shiite religious institutions have also adapted to the coronavirus. Altogether, Lebanon's Muslim community represent about two-thirds of the country's population.

Mohamed El Arwadi, director of Awkaf religious endowments at Dar El Fatwa, Lebanon's highest Sunni authority, told The National that worshippers were instructed two weeks ago to bring their own prayer mats and conduct ritual washing at home instead of at the mosque.

During prayers, advice is given on hygiene measures and mosques are being disinfected.

“We are doing our best,” he said.

The Supreme Islamic Shiite Council in Beirut has issued similar directives.

“We tell people to not go to crowded places and to not shake hands nor kiss,” said Ali Jaber, the council’s director.

While the country is still largely operating as normal, measures might soon be increased, said Salim Adib, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the American University of Beirut.

"Lebanon is slowly moving towards cancelling Friday prayer," he told The National.

Iran, the Middle East’s worst-hit country, has already taken such a move and Saudi Arabia has stopped Umrah pilgrimages and briefly shut the Grand Mosque in Makkah for extra cleaning.

The most important step is to encourage people displaying symptoms to stay at home, said Prof Adib.

"If someone goes to Mass and starts coughing, there will be a panic. Maybe it's not about cancelling events, but about telling people who are coughing and sneezing: please stay at home."