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Mass religious gatherings to stop in the UK


Diwali is celebrated at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Diwali is celebrated at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)

The concept of mass congregational prayers has undergone a major transformation in the last few days as the UK went into semi-lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed 71 lives in the country.

The official UK government advice is for everyone, with or without any symptoms of the deadly virus, to avoid all non-essential social contact and travel, with the elderly and pregnant women among the high-risk category required to go into complete lockdown.

This clampdown on gatherings has not only meant an impact on people’s work and social life but also their prayer regimes as religious services have been specifically included in the government’s restrictions.

“We include religious groups in our advice about social contact. We have seen from elsewhere in the world how sometimes it is through religious gatherings that the virus can spread, so, with the deepest regret and the heaviest of heart, we include faith groups and gatherings of faith within the advice,” said UK health secretary Matt Hancock.

Many of the temples and gurdwaras across the UK have started putting virtual worship options in place, including one of the UK”s largest temples – the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir at Neasden in north London – screening its evening aarti for people to follow online via live web stream.

Many of them have been also been offering free mobile food service to those in need, as well as delivery services for the elderly and vulnerable.

“It is important to keep faith during times of challenge. A good initiative by the Neasden Temple,” said Ruchi Ghanashyam, the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, in reference to the web-streamed aarti.

“Hope our diaspora community organisations find ways to reach out to our elderly and vulnerable to assist them, especially by creative use of technology,” she said.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) issued its guidance for British Muslim communities across the UK to suspend all congregational activities and tried to reassure the community over its obligation for Friday prayers.

“Many Muslim scholars, consulted through groups such as the British Board of Scholars and Imams, as well as a number of institutions and international bodies, believe that the individual obligation to perform Friday prayers in mosque congregations be temporarily lifted,” the MCB said.

“We all have a public duty to protect one another from harm, and it is evident the most effective way to do this now is to avoid social contact as much as possible. This includes all walks of life, whether social, work or the mosque,” MCB Secretary General Harun Khan added.

The Church of England has also issued similar advice and suspended all services to try and stem the spread of the outbreak.

“Our life is going to be less characterised by attendance at church on Sunday, and more characterised by the prayer and service we offer each day. We may not be able to pray with people in the ways that we are used to, but we can certainly pray for people,” the Archbishops of Canterbury and York said in a combined statement.

Several diaspora groups and charities have also launched new initiatives, including volunteering group Sewa Day introducing a “Help Your Neighbour” campaign for people to help out their vulnerable neighbours during the lockdown scenario.