Amid coronavirus, God goes online to reach worshippers

Reuters
By Umberto Bacchi

TBILISI (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)

U.S. religious centers buy more insurance after raft of shootings

FILE PHOTO: A member of the Chabad of Midtown prays during a service for members of the Poway San Diego Chabad Synagogue, in New York, U.S., April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Suzanne Barlyn

(Reuters) – U.S. religious centers are buying special insurance to protect them from the financial consequences of an armed intruder opening fire in their buildings.

Many congregations have been reassessing coverage and buying separate “active assailant” policies as shootings at houses of worship, including churches, synagogues and mosques, become more common, religious leaders and insurance representatives said in interviews.

“You didn’t think about it until the last couple of years and now it’s something that you think about all the time,” said Brian McAuliffe, director of risk management for Willow Creek Community Church, whose six Illinois locations serve some 20,000 congregants.

Potential violence has become top-of-mind for many religious organizations, following a spate of shootings in recent years.

Last Saturday, a woman was fatally shot and three people injured at Chabad of Poway synagogue in suburban San Diego by a gunman identified as John Earnest, 19. He pleaded not guilty to the shootings on Tuesday.

The Poway attack, on the last day of Passover, came six months to the day after 11 worshippers were shot to death at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest attack ever on American Jewry.

Other shootings in recent years killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017; nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; and six people at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in 2012.

Violence also has come in other forms this year, such as the burning of three predominantly black churches in southern Louisiana between March 26 and April 4.

Willow Creek bought an active assailant policy two years ago, McAuliffe said. The added insurance covers expenses that are typically excluded from general liability coverage, including medical expenses, victim lawsuits, building repairs or replacement and media consultants.

VULNERABILITIES

Houses of worship face unique risks because of their mission to be welcoming, insurers and brokers said. The physical set-up of many worship centers also is a concern.

“You come in the back and everyone is facing the other way,” said Peter Persuitti, who heads the religious practice for insurance broker Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. “They are so vulnerable.”

Willow Creek’s coverage costs a “couple of thousand dollars” a year, which is a small fraction of its overall insurance budget, McAuliffe said.

Premiums for one policy backed by insurer AXA XL costs $1,200 per $1 million of coverage, said Paul Marshall, who heads the active shooter insurance program for the Ohio-based McGowan Companies, which underwrites the coverage.

Recent attacks spurred five synagogues and churches to buy the coverage this week, Marshall said.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis bought active assailant coverage last year, covering 141 parishes and 75 schools, said Mike Witka, director of risk management.

Insurance companies also are ramping up educational programs for faith-based policyholders to help them manage the risk of violent intruders. For example, nearly 200 parishioners and staff from congregations insured through Church Mutual Insurance Co packed a church in Lenexa, Kansas, last month for a half-day seminar. They learned how to develop security plans and minimize bloodshed if someone opens fire.

The event is one of nine that Church Mutual planned for the year.

Church Mutual’s general liability policy includes “catastrophic violence” coverage of up to $50,000 per victim and $300,000 per violent incident.

Other measures could change how Americans have long envisioned their religious surroundings.

“We don’t really like to shut our doors because we want to be welcoming,” Witka said. “But we have to start thinking that once mass starts, the doors have to be locked and shut.”

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Bill Trott)

European Jews feel under threat, think of emigrating: EU survey

The Star of David is seen on the facade of a synagogue in Paris France, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – More than one in three European Jews have considered emigrating over the past five years because they no longer feel safe amid a surge in anti-Semitism, a European Union study showed on Monday.

The survey in 12 countries that are home to 96 percent of European Jews showed widespread malaise at a rise in hate crimes which Jewish communities blame in part on anti-Semitic comments by politicians that stoke a climate of impunity.

Feelings of insecurity were particularly acute among Jews in France, followed by Poland, Belgium and Germany, the study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) found.

Facing hostility online and at work or in graffiti scrawled on walls near synagogues, nine out of ten Jews living in nations which have been their home for centuries feel that anti-Semitism has worsened over the past five years, the study said.

“It is impossible to put a number on how corrosive such everyday realities can be, but a shocking statistic sends a clear message … more than one third say that they consider emigrating because they no longer feel safe as Jews,” FRA’S director Michael O’Flaherty was cited as saying in a foreword to the study.

EU officials presenting the report in Brussels on Monday called on governments to do more to combat such hate, including commemorating the history of the Holocaust in which the Nazis killed at least six million Jews in Europe during World War Two.

“What we need now is concrete action in the member states to see real change for Jews on the ground,” European Commission deputy head Frans Timmermans told reporters. “There is no Europe if Jews don’t feel safe in Europe.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn are among the most prominent EU leaders battling accusations of anti-Semitism by Jewish community leaders.

Worries over the hostile rhetoric are underscored by government figures in several European countries showing a spike in violence against Jews.

Following a number of high-profile attacks targeting Jews, soldiers and armed guards at the doors of synagogues or Jewish schools have become a familiar site in Europe.

Eighty-five percent of the 16,395 polled identified anti-Semitism as the biggest social and political problem, while almost a third said they avoid attending events or visiting Jewish sites.

However, 79 percent of those who experienced harassment said they did not report the incidents to authorities.

The results showed a loss of faith in their governments’ ability to keep them safe, the European Jewish Congress (EJC) said, causing Jews to feel torn between emigrating and cutting themselves off from their Jewish community.

“This is intolerable and a choice no people should have to face,” EJC head Moshe Kantor said in a statement.

A government spokeswoman in Germany said the results of the study were shocking, adding that the interior ministry “isn’t looking at it idly.”

 

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels and Riham Alkousaa in Berlin; Editing by Richard Balmforth)