Houses of worship gain audience by going online during virus

National News

FILE – In this Friday, March 27, 2020 file photo, Pope Francis delivers the Urbi and Orbi prayer (To the City and To the World) in an empty St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican. The pontiff likened the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic to a storm laying bare illusions that people can be self-sufficient and instead finds “all of us fragile and disoriented” and needing each other’s help and comfort. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

On a rainy evening in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis delivered a special blessing, asking God for help against the coronavirus.

The square in Vatican City would normally be packed with onlookers, but no one was standing on the glistening cobblestones in March as he implored God to “not leave us at the mercy of the storm.” Millions were watching on TV and online, however.

From the Vatican, to the village church, to mosques and temples, shuttered places of worship are streaming religious services for a global audience seeking spiritual help and connections with others during the pandemic.

Vaishno Devi, one of India’s most revered Hindu shrines, is livestreaming prayers.

“We are missing the pilgrims, their hustle and bustle. Their slogan shouting used to infuse new energy into us,” said Amir Chand, a priest at the temple. “But … in the present scenario, it is better to stay home, and therefore, we also advise the devotees to stay home and enjoy prayers.”

At Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, prayers went online as throngs of worshippers disappeared. The three daily Jewish prayers were broadcast on several platforms, garnering millions of views from around the world, according to Yohanna Bisraor, a spokeswoman for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the site.

Most synagogues in Israel are Orthodox, which typically do not allow livestreaming on the Jewish Sabbath, when turning on electronic devices is forbidden. More liberal congregations, though, have embraced online prayer.

Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, has been streaming prayers throughout the Ramadan holy month, which runs through next week.

“In normal times, you see hundreds and thousands of people praying behind you and you can feel it when they say ‘Amen,’” said Sheikh Youssef Abu Sneineh, the mosque’s imam.

In Nara, Japan, priests at Todaiji Buddhist temple prayed and chanted to drive out the coronavirus in a livestreamed event.

Onoterusaki Shrine in Tokyo is offering an “online shrine” where people submit prayers, each printed on a wooden tablet and offered to the gods of Shinto by the priest.

“I thought about how people can pray and have a peace of mind at a time everyone is feeling uneasy about all the news (of the pandemic) and going through major changes to life, but still cannot go out to pray,” head priest Ryoki Ono said.

Omar Suleiman, an Islamic leader in Irving, Texas, said YouTube videos uploaded by his Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research had 30 million views for all of 2019 and have received 20 million in just the last six weeks.

“People in general, I think, are looking for more meaning and spirituality in the midst of all this,” Suleiman said. “So I think there’s just a general increase in religiosity and consumption of religious content.”

Online viewership of Francis “has grown significantly,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told The Associated Press by email. Francis’ television audience also has increased, including his celebration of Mass every morning to empty pews.

“The numbers indicate that even people who would not have participated in religious services on a daily basis in the past are attending a Mass every morning and listening to the pope’s daily reflection on the gospel,” Bruni said.

Also reaching more people is a tiny church with just a few dozen parishioners in the small Oregon community of Yoder, 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Portland.

Tom Daniels, who grew up in Yoder and has retired in Oakland, California, edits video of the pastor of Smyrna United Church of Christ giving a sermon from her home, of the organist playing in the empty church and other clips. He uploads it to YouTube and has seen a bump in traffic.

For Karen Peterson, who grew up in Yoder and lives in Souderton, Pennsylvania, her Oregon community is just a click away.

“My family still lives there and goes there — it was a connection,” Peterson said. “I like how they do their format. It’s nicely done and it gives me solace.”

Religious leaders are getting used to the changes.

“It’s really hard to talk to the camera for a long period of time, especially to give something that’s meant to stir emotionally and intellectually and spiritually,” said Suleiman, the Islamic leader in Texas, who records on an iPhone perched on a stand. “I think I’m getting better at it because I’m getting more used to it.”

The pope, of course, has a more sophisticated setup, with Vatican staffers — most working from home — producing his homilies live, online and in a downloadable booklet in five languages, Bruni said.

Speaking to a camera “is a challenge, of course, but nothing the papacy is unprepared for,” Bruni said.

The priests of Notre Dame had a jump on preparations, even before the Paris cathedral was heavily damaged by fire last year. They started streaming evening prayers, or vespers, years ago.

After the fire, the priests began streaming vespers last September from Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois church near the Louvre Museum. During the pandemic, they started streaming the lengthier and more elaborate Mass starting in March.

“For them, it’s really complicated because they are happy when they have some people in front of them,” said Andre Finot, Notre Dame’s spokesman.

With countries starting to relax restrictions, the pope will celebrate his last livestreamed Mass on Monday. Some conservative Catholics have blasted the suspension of Masses and inability to receive the Eucharist.

After some normalcy returns, places of worship will need to decide how far to dial back their online presence.

Suleiman, the Islamic leader, expects the pandemic “will change things forever,” giving rise to better quality online programming.

Peterson, who tunes in to her hometown church’s online service, wants to see that endure.

“We certainly would like to worship at our church,” she said. “But there’s a lot of boundaries that I think we’ve broken down and a lot of ways that we can be together that we didn’t think of and weren’t doing before.”

___

Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon. Associated Press journalists Nicole Winfield in Rome; Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, India; Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo; and Josef Federman and Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

___

Follow Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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