Dubai: As various Christian churches across the UAE are preparing for Lent and Holy Week, they are also actively implementing precautionary measures to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19).
Lent is a time of solemn religious observance in Christianity and also the period when churches are filled to the brim with worshippers doing their penance and prayers.
To break up the crowd, several churches have made adjustments with worship services and mass timings since the last week of February, Gulf News has learnt.
Liturgical Sunday schools for children were suspended. Physical contacts were likewise minimised.
Customs and rituals, including the traditional greetings of peace done by shaking of hands and receiving the holy communion on the tongue, have been temporarily prohibited.
Aside from the ritual of cleansing themselves with holy water before entering the church, worshippers have also been advised to use hand sanitisers – set up near the entrances – before coming in to pray.
Praying for Divine intervention
Speaking to Gulf News on Monday, Fr Ninan Philip Panackamattam, vicar of St. Thomas Orthodox Cathedral in Oud Metha, said: “We don’t want to create any panic but we are also worried of the situation. As we pray to God for divine intervention and for the quick recovery of coronavirus patients, we are also implementing measures to safeguard everyone’s health.”
“At a time when a global health emergency of such magnitude has struck panic within many, we are doing our bit to cease the onslaught of the virus. We hold up the UAE in our prayers to ensure good health for our rulers as well as courage and gratitude for those engaged in the medical field.
"We also extend our moral support to the determination of the government by taking in our stride the advised preventive measures from the health authority,” Fr Panackamattam added.
One measure that has been put in place at St. Thomas Church during mass services is doing away with the tradition of ‘kiss of peace’, which involves the granting of peace by shaking each other’s hands.
“Being extremely conservative and orthodox by nature, such an action would have been deemed improbable, if not for the immediate health concerns and the contagious nature of the virus,” Fr Panackamattam explained.
“Friday morning service has also been split into two assemblies to eliminate huge gatherings in an enclosed space,” he added.
While churches in the UAE are deep in prayers and stand in solidarity with all those affected by the coronavirus, there are, however, no extraordinary measures being enforced such as shutting down the house of prayers, noted Rev. Fr. Lennie J A Connully OFM Cap, parish priest at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai.
“Unlike in Kuwait, where churches are on temporary lockdown for two weeks until March 14, there is no advisory yet to do the same from the UAE government,” Fr Connully told Gulf News.
“Mass timings are the same and services this Lent are the same as last year,” added the head of the Catholic church in Dubai, which is said to be the biggest parish in the world that serves over 350,000 multinational churchgoers.
Fr Connully added there could be a 5-10 per cent decline in the number of regular churchgoers because of coronavirus fear, but there has been no marked decrease in the number of Friday and Sunday worshippers so far.
“If people avoid going to the church for fear of contracting coronavirus, we will understand. If they feel more secure and comfortable at home, it is fine. God will not punish them. But what is very important is for them to continue praying fervently,” Fr Connully underlined.
“There are things beyond our control and it is not only at church, where people can be exposed. People travel in public transport; they hold the escalator railings, they go to crowded places – and they are also exposed. What is important is that they follow proper hygiene,” he added.
Residents are confident that the UAE government will do all it can to contain the spread of COVID 19.
Paul George Poovatheril, Indian expat from Kerala, told Gulf News: “I think there is really no need to panic as the government is taking all measures to combat it and they are well equipped.”
“We just need to follow some of the most simple preventive measures to keep ourselves healthy and safe in the community. We are sure that with all of us being vigilant and taking proper preventive care and precautions will help us face this key health challenge effectively.”
Matilyn Bagunu, choir director at St Mary’s Filipino Community Choir, shared the same sentiments. “We need follow proper hygiene, keep our immune system strong and stay healthy. We can not be paranoid and we must not stop the normal things we do because of coronavirus.”
“Church activities remain normal and all events are going on as usual,” she added.
Sri Lankan expat Sampath Mathew Fernando, a parishioner at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Sharjah added: “Several precautions have been put in place to ensure the safety of everyone. The bottom line is there is no need to panic. Lent is the time for reflection and this is the time that we really have to keep the faith and pray the threat of coronavirus will come to an end.”
Gurudwara to install thermal scanners
The Guru Nanak Darbar Gurudwara in Jebel Ali has decided to install thermal scanners from Tuesday.
Surender Singh Kandhari, chairman of the Gurudwara, told Gulf News that the Sikh temple will install four thermal scanners to cover its two main entrances and two entrances from the basement car parking.
“These are the scanners that you see in the airports. Our man has gone to buy them. We will install them tomorrow.”
He said if any visitor to the Gurudwara is detected with high temperatures, he or she would be requested to refrain from entering the place of worship and would be reported to the Dubai Health Authority.
“This is not to create any panic. We are just taking a precaution. We welcome everyone to the Gurudwara. Let us just be careful and better be safe than sorry.”
He said several hand sanitizer dispensers had been installed and safety guidelines issued by the authorities have been placed at the Gurudwara which receives around 2000 visitors a day and almost 15,000 during the weekend.
An ISO certified facility, Gurudwara already has several measures in place to ensure hygiene and food safety, he said.
“We have to stick to various requirements of the ISO certification and keep high standards in hygiene and cleanliness because for us, cleanliness is next to godliness,” said Kandhari.
Temple, community centre restrict mass gatherings
The Sindhi Guru Darbar Temple (Siva temple) in Bur Dubai and the adjacent community centre Sindhi Ceremonial Centre have restricted mass gatherings and sit-down prayers and congregations, said Raju Shroff, a temple trustee.
He said the move was not based on any government order.
“We have decided to take these precautions. There is no restriction on devotees coming and praying in the temple. We are trying to avoid big gatherings.”
He said necessary hygiene products have also been supplied to ensure safety of the worshippers.