Push to Reopen Houses of Worship in Europe and Mideast Brings Perils and Tensions

Push to Reopen Houses of Worship in Europe and Mideast Brings Perils and Tensions

Push to Reopen Houses of Worship in Europe and Mideast Brings Perils and Tensions

Push to Reopen Houses of Worship in Europe and Mideast Brings Perils and Tensions

BERLIN — As nations weigh the calculus of reopening parts of society after locking down because of the coronavirus, Germany has plunged ahead after bringing its outbreak under control, reopening houses of worship and allowing the faithful to gather again in larger numbers.

That decision has had pivotal consequences, with a new clusters of cases emerging as 40 churchgoers tested positive after a May 10 service at a Baptist church, the German health authorities said on Friday. Six parishioners were hospitalized, according to Wladimir Pritzkau, a parish leader.

“We followed all the rules,” Mr. Pritzkau told the DPA news agency, adding that the church did not know how many people attended the service two weeks ago.

The state of Hesse, where the infections occurred, has been allowing church services under special guidelines, including asking worshipers to keep five feet apart and requiring churches to have disinfectant readily available. Now, the church has since moved its weekend services, which are held in German and Russian, back online.

The new cluster illustrated the perils of trying to restore some semblance of normalcy amid the relentless persistence of the virus. Germany reported 431 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, bringing the country’s toll to 178,281, with 8,247 deaths.

In the United States, President Trump has pressed state officials to allow church gatherings, declaring religious institutions essential. In Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre church reopened after a two-month lockdown. In the West Bank, protesters on Sunday demanded that mosques be reopened for Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the conclusion of the Ramadan fasting month.

And in France, the faithful took the first tentative steps to worshiping in groups again this weekend after a lockdown, while observing social distancing and wearing masks. Some small churches reopened Saturday; the first Mass was on Sunday. The move followed a legal challenge to the French government’s ban on public worship that was not set to be lifted until the end of May.

Last Monday, the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court, ordered the government to reopen churches, mosques and synagogues within eight days, saying that worship is a fundamental freedom that could be reconciled with appropriate measures to protect health.

The decree lifting the ban with immediate effect was issued late on Friday and caught most of France’s religious leaders off guard.

“It was a nice surprise,” said the Rev. Antoine De Folleville, the parish priest, noting that it had coincided with the celebration of the Ascension of the Lord. “It’s a great joy to finally be reunited with our parishioners.”

On Sunday, there was a sense of both joy and anxiety in the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris as Catholic worshipers returned en masse for the first time after a two-month hiatus.

“How should Communion be given?” a woman asked Father De Folleville. “With pliers?”

“No, we’ll wash our hands with alcoholic gel right before taking up the host,” said the priest, who was making final preparations before celebrating his first public Mass in 10 weeks.

France is one of the last countries in Western Europe to reopen its places of worship, nearly two weeks into the easing of its lockdown. Germany lifted the ban on public worship this month, as did Austria and Italy. Places of worship have not yet been permitted to unlock their doors in Britain.

In Spain, houses of worship have progressively reopened since the start of this month, with a limit of one-third or half the full occupancy depending on the provinces, under a government plan to ease the lockdown restrictions at a faster pace in areas that are deemed to have contained the coronavirus threat.

To help reduce the risk of contagion, the Roman Catholic Church in Spain also put in place its own safety measures and recommendations, including holding more Sunday Mass services to avoid having too many of the faithful gathered at the same time, as well as avoiding choir singing because of the problem of maintaining safe social distances between choir members.

Catholics in French had long called for the reopening of houses of worship, saying that churches could open their doors as soon as proper health precautions were taken. Jews and Muslims in the country took a more cautious line, saying that synagogues and mosques were unlikely to reopen until early June, as a precaution to stem the spread of the virus.

On Sunday morning, the cobbled forecourt of the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés was the scene of a ballet of tentative worshipers, nervously adjusting the masks on their faces as they entered the church where a group of volunteers in pink fluorescent vests handed out disinfectant gel.

Inside, two of every three seats were marked with a sign forbidding people to sit, to ensure that they kept a safe distance from one another. About 200 people gathered in the church, which in normal times can accommodate 800.

“It’s like a rebirth to be able to come back here — it was a real need,” said Franck Huillo, 56, adding that he had almost “given up praying during the confinement.”

The Rev. Matthieu Rougé, a French bishop who was in charge of coordinating the church reopenings, said that “religions must take their rightful place to contribute to the renewal” of the country after the crisis.

“But we can’t live in constant fear,” Father Rougé said, adding that he would see to it that every church that reopened in his diocese complied with health precautions.

“We can’t live like this, with the shops full and the churches empty,” he added.

He acknowledged that there were fears that churches could turn into new clusters of infection. In mid-February, a large gathering of 2,000 worshipers at an evangelical church in eastern France, the second-most-affected region after Paris, contributed to spreading the virus across the country.

In a statement released on Saturday, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, said that he would continue “to place the health safety of worshipers above all other considerations,” and encouraged Muslims to celebrate Eid at home.

But in the West Bank, thousands of Palestinians crowded into streets early on Sunday in spite of coronavirus restrictions, including many who demanded that the Palestinian authorities reopen mosques.

“The people want holiday prayers,” demonstrators chanted in front of the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in the southern West Bank city of Hebron.

In towns like Tulkarem and Qalqilya, demonstrators entered mosques. It was not clear whether the authorities had allowed them to do so or whether they had forced their way inside. Palestinians also gathered to protest government restrictions in other West Bank cities. In Salfit, demonstrators shouted, “Open up the town.”

In mid-May, Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh of the Palestinian Authority said that Palestinians would not be allowed to move around cities and villages in the West Bank during Eid al-Fitr, aside from a few exceptions like going to the pharmacy.

The Authority has said that 368 people in the West Bank have contracted the virus. Gaza reported its first coronavirus death on Saturday.

The authorities in Hebron ultimately gave in to the demands and decided to open up large mosques, school grounds and soccer fields for Eid al-Fitr prayers.

“There was immense pressure,” said Khaled Dodeen, the Palestinian Authority’s deputy governor of Hebron.

Christopher F. Schuetze reported from Berlin, Constant Méheut from Paris and Adam Rasgon from Tel Aviv. Raphael Minder contributed reporting from Madrid.

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