Solace in prayer as pandemic toll nears two million

Paris (AFP) –


The onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left nearly two million people dead, has seen Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh worshippers seek solace in prayer.

With places of worship often closed and mass gatherings banned for fear of fanning infections, believers are turning to religious leaders, or to the heavens for answers.

On a sidewalk in Mexico City, Enriqueta Romero tends to a small shrine honouring Our Lady of the Holy Death. The tiny altar, surrounded by candles, plastic virgins and grim reaper figurines is one of the last prayer spaces open in town.

"There are a lot of people outside churches asking God to not forget about us, asking God to take this disease away," says Romero. "There are a lot of needs."

"It is thanks to her that I am here," says street vendor Gabriela Rangel who seeks protection from the shrine. "She doesn't leave us unemployed, she's always here for us."

Social distancing, lockdown and restrictions are exacting a major impact on how worshippers around the world are practising their faith.

In Israel's Ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, going to the synagogue to pray three times a day was part of community life. It's no longer permitted. "We try to improvise as much as possible," says Rabbi Nechemia Bluestein, 49.

"A new thing that never existed before has emerged -- people no longer visit each other (to condole), but rather call on the phone or send a condolence letter," he adds. "So people need to deal with their loss all by themselves, and it is very difficult."

- 'May be just destiny' -

At the Church of Saint Sava in Belgrade, Serbian Orthodox deacon Mladen Kovacevic believes it is "easier for people who are deeply in the faith to... somehow find comfort and some calm".

"A priest can do much for his faithful," he explains. Last year, the Serbian Orthodox Church lost both its patriarch Irinej and Amfilohije, its leader in Montenegro, to Covid-19.

Support and mutual aid are what matters says Gurpreet Singh Anand, president of The Central Gurdwara London, the oldest established Sikh place of worship in Europe.

"The role is taking up a lot time in talking to people," he says. "For them, you know, being able to come and just visit the gurdwara is a major thing."

Pakawat Jityomnant, an antique trader in Thailand whose father died from underlying conditions not linked to Covid, held a shortened funeral to minimise the risk to his father's elderly friends of potentially becoming infected.

"Maybe it's just the destiny," he said. "Somebody can live. Somebody die. And we still don't know the final situation here on what's gonna happen or how many people are gonna die here."

In Japan, Reikou Sasaki, a Buddhist priest at the Zojoji temple in Tokyo, believes in acceptance. "It is religion's important role to help people maintain peace and serenity of mind when we are in this tragic situation," he says.

On the banks of the river Ganges in India, Hindu pilgrims have defied the virus to flock to the Kumbh Mela religious festival that regularly attracts millions.

"God will take care of the pandemic fears," says Sanjay, who travelled from Delhi to take the sacred immersion in the river. "Humans do their duty and God does theirs."