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Let us pray, electronically: America's Middle Eastern churches go virtual during pandemic

As congregations prepare for one of Christianity's holiest holidays, livestreams have become essential part of worship
Father Boulos Moussa holds service for congregation of St Mary Christ Orthodox Church in Berkley, Michigan, from his home during coronavirus lockdown (MEE/screenshot)

After 31 years of service, Father Boulos Moussa never thought he'd be giving a sermon from the comfort of his couch.

But as the world grapples with the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic, unusual times call for unusual methods.  

Wearing his traditional black robes and with an open bible on his lap, Father Moussa now reads his sermons in front of a camera broadcasting live to Facebook as churches remain closed to congregations amid Covid-19.

The sermons take place in Arabic, as most of his congregation originally hails from the Levant region of the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity. 

"When I do my sermons, I insist on being at home because it's the only way to do it safely. I don't get out of my house," Father Moussa told Middle East Eye after his church, the St Mary Christ Orthodox Church in Berkley, Michigan, shuttered its doors because of the pandemic.

'Closing church does not mean closing our service or closing our prayers. This coronavirus has turned every home of our parishioners into a little church'

- Father George Shalhoub, Basilica of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church

"I am not even going to the church to [broadcasts] from there because it's very essential to guide the people by example, so for this reason we do our services live, but from home, not the church."

The Greek Orthodox Church goes by a religious calendar different from most US churches, with Easter on 19 April this year. Most of the country plans to observe the Easter holiday this Sunday. 

The church is in the middle of its 46-day commemoration of Lent, considered one of its holiest periods.

This year, the church closed its doors just two weeks into the religious observance, which began on Ash Wednesday, 26 February. 

Father Moussa recently had a medical operation, so it is imperative to his own health to stay indoors until the pandemic passes, but he stresses to his congregation that the widespread lockdowns and social distancing practices are about more than protecting themselves, but rather the entire community in which they live. 

Michigan, in particular, has been one of the hardest-hit states in the US, with 21,500 confirmed cases as of Thursday and about 1,000 coronavirus-related deaths.

Home to one of the largest Arab-American populations in the country, Michigan is one of 42 US states to have issued statewide stay-at-home orders. Every state has at least recommended against large gatherings.

Church, an 'essential business'?

Still, several churches across the US have made headlines for breaking those orders. One pastor of a Pentecostal megachurch in Florida was arrested for repeatedly refusing to cancel services with hundreds of attendees, despite local orders and federal guidelines against it.

Some churches in Ohio, Kentucky and Louisiana have also refused to close up, insisting that church is an "essential business". 

Moussa has no such qualms about closing his 100-year-old church's doors; instead, he said the teachings of the Bible suggest that the Christian thing to do is to stay at home. 

"From a Christian point of view, we have to follow the regulations of the civil authorities, and so I believe that what some of those [other churches] are doing is not right," he said. 

Even Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is believed to have taken place, has closed for the first time in nearly 700 years, Moussa points out. 

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The Arabic Baptist Church (ABC) in Washington, DC, has also closed its doors, holding services via livestream instead. 

The congregation was ahead of most of the country, holding its last in-person service on 1 March, weeks before stay-at-home orders were issued by any state or local government in the US. 

Two members on the board of ABC are doctors who had been following the data coming out of Wuhan, China, from the earliest days of the virus's spread. 

Even at its last meeting on 1 March, the church had already begun to take precautionary measures, telling older parishioners to stay home, ABC's Pastor Nabeel "Bill" Zaydan said.

"The head of the board on our committee is a retired doctor and a very wise man, Dr Raja Hawit... and very early, he basically said we really need to protect our older people and keep them home... but as soon as it became very serious, we stopped it altogether." 

More than a month later, the spread of the virus in DC has yet to reach its peak, with increases in new cases not expected to slow, until late June to early July, according to the District Mayor's office. 

"Since then, we have not met at all. Basically, our meetings on Sunday are live-streamed on YouTube and Facebook," Pastor Zaydan said. "Other things like Bible studies and such have been maintaining groups on Zoom."

This Sunday, the church plans on live streaming Easter services from inside the church, while its parishioners watch from home.  

"Basically we're encouraging people in their own homes to continue to celebrate as they're used to celebrating, but without meeting with other people together," Zaydan said.

'This is very real'

It is not the first time the pastor has found himself under a lockdown. He was in Lebanon during parts of the 15-year-long civil war that broke out in 1975, but back then things were very different. 

At the time Zaydan was not yet a pastor, but he was a practicing Christian and very involved with the church. 

"Because of the Civil War we were not able to get to our churches or meet together with our friends. So basically, we continued to use the means that we had at that time," Pastor Zaydan said. 

In those days without the internet, holding remote services was impossible. 

"We did not have the means that we have today, all we had was just basically phones to check in on each," he said, adding that the church had created something like a phone tree, setting up rotating person-to-person calls between the congregation so that each phone session was held between different members. 

Since most communication has now been streamlined by the internet, the church has more time and resources to dedicate to other initiatives, like making sure its older members have food and medicine at home. 

"Our young people are basically doing all the shopping for the older people," he said. "We actually call them and say 'open your garage', and we drop what they need in their garage and go." 

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"Our congregation is spread out through the whole greater metropolitan area of DC. We have some people in northern Virginia, some people in southern Maryland, some people in DC, so we've delegated young people in each area to basically look after the older people in their areas," the pastor said. 

So far, Zaydan said his congregation is taking the threat of the coronavirus - officially known as Covid-19 - very seriously. But he has seen reports of other churches being hesitant to follow stay-at-home orders. 

"To all of our friends who sometimes don't believe some of the things that are going on, this is very real," he said.

"People are actually getting sick and people are dying because of Covid-19. We really need to lock-in and basically stop the spread of the virus in the best possible way. 

"By God's grace, this thing will pass and we'll be able to meet again and not take for granted what we've had before," he said. 

Father George Shalhoub of the Basilica of St Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Livonia, Michigan, said his church has also gone virtual, which has been difficult on his congregation, particularly since this is the season of Lent, Palm Sunday and Easter. 

To overcome the challenges people are facing, Shalhoub said it helps to remind his community of Christianity's roots in the Middle East and the struggles the region has faced throughout history, to help get them through these hard times. 

"Christians from the Middle East have known suffering for over 2,000 years. The early Christians lived in caves and escaped swords and died by the swords but kept their faith, so inconvenience is nothing new to us," Shalhoub said. "Even in modern times, our people are still in refugee camps." 

This context has helped his congregation understand the importance of staying home in order to reach the common goal of eradicating the virus, he said. 

"Circumstances have forced us to temporarily close the doors, but closing church does not mean closing our service or closing our prayers. This coronavirus has turned every home of our parishioners into a little church."