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People of faith with major religious holidays coming up this month will find big changes coming in how they celebrate.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Tom Wolf and religious leaders across the commonwealth are encouraging alternative forms of faith gatherings.

Wolf and Department of Health Sec. Dr. Rachel Levine talked Friday during their daily COVID-19 press conference about the need for further guidance for religious gatherings.

Updated guidance notes nothing in the stay-at-home order should affect the operation of religious institutions. Wolf asked religious leaders to find alternatives to in-person gatherings.

Individuals should not gather for services or celebrations until the stay-at-home order is lifted, Wolf said.

“I know that we’re nearing several holidays, including major religious holidays like Easter and Passover,” Gov. Wolf said. “I am encouraging religious leaders hosting a holiday celebration to consider an alternative that does not bring people together in-person.

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Easter, Passover, Ramadan fall in April

For many, Easter sunrise services, Seder dinners or nightly iftars are at the core of their faith. This year, with the stay-at-home order in place, they must find ways of worshiping without gathering in large groups.

Several Pennsylvania religious leaders joined Wolf in urging fellow leaders to embrace alternate forms of worship.

“Christians the world over are preparing to enter the holiest week of the year,” said Most Rev. Nelson J. Pérez, Archbishop of Philadelphia. “This year, Holy Week comes at a time when the coronavirus has abruptly altered our lives.”

He urged everyone to heed the governor’s call not to gather in large groups.

Today’s Christians, Jews and Muslims have one distinct advantage over their ancestors living through past pandemics.

They have a modern technology their grandparents and great-grandparents could have not imagined during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

While nationally televised services have been around for decades, todays technology enables even the smallest congregations to worship together. Social media and YouTube broadcasts can invite both members and complete strangers to join the worship. Video chat rooms make Bible studies and other events possible while everybody safely observes the stay-at-home order.

Like working remotely from home, it’s a new way of social distancing while staying safe at home.

Advice from rabbis, imams, pastors

“At our Passover seders this year, there will be many answers to the age-old question, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?,’” said Rabbi Jeffrey Astrakhan, Temple Beth Israel in York. “Under no circumstance is gathering at the home of another the right thing to do this year. Stay home. Use online meeting technology and remember, as the Passover Haggadah teaches us, ‘Next year, may all be free!’”

This is an excellent time to remember that the church is not a building, but the people who make up the congregation, said Senior Pastor Mark Kelly Tyler, Ph.D., Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia.

“We must do everything within our power to save the lives of those we’ve been called to shepherd,” he said.

“During times of bad weather, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) used to order the muezzin (person who calls to prayer) to change the call from ‘come to prayer’ to ‘pray in your home,’” said Imam Idris Abdul-Zahir, Resident Imam of Masjidullah.

“This was because the Prophet was concerned of the harm his followers could encounter traveling to the masjid for prayer under potentially dangerous conditions,” he said.

He encourages religious leaders of every faith to consider this unseen harm caused by the Covid-19 virus and keep their congregations out of harm’s way.

“For it is written in the Quran that the saving of one life is as if you’ve saved all humanity,” he said.

You can access Gov. Wolf’s remarks about religious gatherings and other recent mitigation efforts here or on Facebook here.

View the updated stay-at-home order guidance as a PDF here or on Scribd.

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