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Around the world, the devout are adapting their rituals to fit life under the coronavirus

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians attend a Good Friday service during the coronavirus pandemic at the Medhane Alem Cathedral in Addis Ababa on April 17. (Michael Tewelde/AFP/Getty Images)

Organized religions were not built for social distancing.

Worshipers in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples from India to South Korea to Ukraine have found themselves unwitting coronavirus vectors. And from Israel to Iran to the United States, some religious communities have been at the forefront of resistance to social distancing, especially orders to close or restrict places of worship. Across continents, celebrations around holidays including Easter, Passover, Nowruz and Ramadan, which begins Thursday, have been upended as people forgo communal prayers and rites.

In the face of all manner of disruptions and cataclysms, religious practices have adapted and persevered — and the coronavirus pandemic is no different. Around the world, rituals have begun to adapt to a changing way of life.

Here’s a look at some new ways of sustaining old traditions.

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Israel

Under Jewish law, the body of the deceased must be ritually washed before burial in a smock and shroud.

These days in Israel, the group of people who ritually wash and prepare the body, known as the chevra kadisha, wear hazmat suits. They receive bodies wrapped in impermeable plastic wrappings, which they remove for the ritual and replace before removing again to lower the deceased into the ground.

As virus spikes among ultra-Orthodox, Israel deploys security forces to make them stay home

For Jews around the world, the seven-day mourning period that follows the death of a loved one, known as shiva, is a time when people visit the house of the mourner to pay respects and pray. There’s no easy equivalent. Nonetheless, some have turned to virtual shivas on platforms such as Zoom as a way to comfort the bereaved.

Italy

Pope Francis has opposed the Italian government’s move to close churches — which remain open for personal prayer under certain circumstances — but he has urged followers to consider alternatives to confession in person.

“If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart,” the pope said during a live-streamed morning mass on March 20, Crux Now reported.

With Holy Week hushed by a pandemic, the pope does social distancing his own way

Priests in Italy are permitted to hear confessions if they wear masks and gloves and remain at least three feet away from the parishioner. Pope Francis has canceled all of his public appearances and conducts prayers via live-streaming.

This is how the world is celebrating Easter during the covid-19 pandemic

United Arab Emirates

Amid the pandemic, the Ministry of Justice in the United Arab Emirates, a Muslim-majority country in the Persian Gulf, has launched an online platform for Muslim marriages.

“Once all the required information is submitted, the couple then have to book an appointment with the Ministry of Justice, who will then appoint an imam to recite the Koran via a video conference,” Gulf News reported. After the fees have been paid online, approvals will be texted to the couple’s phones.

Polygamy is legal in the UAE, where, according to Islamic law, men can have up to four wives (often, if they can afford it, in separate homes). But, religious authorities have warned, it’s a violation of the coronavirus-related lockdown to travel from one city to another to visit a different wife.

Thailand

Many Buddhist monks rely on alms as a source of sustenance and connection with the lay community. In Thailand, they’ve taken to wearing face shields as they interact with face mask-wearing devotees, who provide donations of food in prepackaged bags or through plastic shields to reduce physical contact.

Russia

The kissing of icons, revered in the Russian Orthodox Church, is still allowed. A volunteer sanitizes the icon after every worshiper partakes in the tradition. It’s a workaround that still leaves public health officials worried.

The Moscow Patriarchate has introduced other preventive measures, like ordering church personal to don disposable gloves when giving out ritual bread, or serving a traditionally communal ceremonial drink with disposable spoons instead.

Russia’s coronavirus cases rising, but the Orthodox church holds to traditions such as kissing icons

Pakistan

Pakistan requires that people of a certain income pay zakat, a traditional Islamic charity tax. But with an estimated 25 percent of the population unable to afford to eat twice a day during the country’s lockdown, according to Prime Minister Imran Khan, the coronavirus has become a central focus of zakat giving.

Religious charity networks, usually busiest around holidays, are mobilizing to receive donations and distribute basic goods including antibacterial soap. Supermarket shoppers in Karachi are pausing after they shop to offer food or money to impoverished people on the street, the BBC reported. The exchange often comes with a simple request: that the recipient pray for the coronavirus pandemic to end soon.

Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow and Paul Schemm in Dubai contributed reporting.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: For people under 50, second booster doses are on hold while the Biden administration works to roll out shots specifically targeting the omicron subvariants this fall. Immunizations for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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