COVID 19’s Religious Consequences in Singapore

Due to COVID-19, Singaporeans have been navigating religious aspects of quarantine since early April, when the Singapore Christian community had to experience Good Friday and Easter Sunday differently than usual. The Muslim community, knowing it would have to experience Ramadan differently this year as well, shared sympathies with the Christian community, most notably in a letter of encouragement written by the Mufti of Singapore, Nazirudin Mohd Nasir.

Since then, places of worship have been closed in order to help prevent the spread of the virus, making it difficult for citizens to continue religious practices. As Singapore entered Phase 1 of its “circuit breaker” on June 1st, the Archbishop of Singapore announced that Catholic churches would not reopen. Weeks after the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) publicized the required measures religious organizations must take before opening for private worship, Archbishop Williams stated caution was a part of “pastoral responsibility.” He also shared that the decision was made after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese studied the restrictions and requirements and consulted with parish priests.

Weddings, funeral services, and wakes with no more than 10 people present can still place, while abiding by the restrictions and requirements set by the ministry. The archdiocese is “looking forward to opening [its] churches for private prayer and adoration” under Phase 2, when some requirements are relaxed.

Mosques, however, were open to provide limited prayer spaces for private worship startin June 2nd. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) said the mosques would be reopened with “maximum precautionary measures” in Phase 1. The mosques will be open for limited hours with limited marked prayer zones, each accommodating up to five individuals at a time. MUIS has urged the community to give priority to mobile workers who are unable to perform prayers at a fixed workspace, while recommending that those who are young, elderly, those especially vulnerable to infection, and those with the ability to perform their worship at home to do so. Singapore is somewhat unique in its ability to regulate mosques in this way, since they operate under the umbrella of government-backed MUIS instead of as fully-independent local congregations.

Regular disinfection of common spaces, physical and temperature checks, as well as the national SafeEntry system are a few of the ways mosques are implementing safety. Others include requiring face masks, avoiding inter-mingling with others at the mosques, refraining from physical contact with greetings, and each worshiper bringing personal items instead of sharing communal ones.

The Muslim community also hopes to open for for congregational prayers and other activities during Phase 2, “as such, we urge the community to work closely with mosque leaders to continue to curb the spread of the virus by adopting the necessary precautions when visiting our mosques, and to visit mosques during this period only when necessary.”

Singaporean Hindu temples will carry on similarly to mosques with the amount of people allowed at funerals and marriages, as well as regarding SafeEntry and temperature checks. Some temples will require pre-booking to be allowed inside to use services. Devotees without booking are allowed to pray from the entrance however.

Devotees will not be allowed to stay in the temples for prolonged periods or consume any of the blessed foods within. Temples will not offer Theertham, Vibhuthi, Kumkumam, or Thulasi in the hands of a devotee, nor will there be any Safari blessing done. Kalanji and/or Prasadam may be provided with minimum contact.

But what is the largest religious community in Singapore, the followers of Buddhism, doing to continue their practice despite COVID-19? Like many other religious groups, the Buddhist community in Singapore is turning to online gatherings. Buddhist temples have come up with innovative ways to continue their spiritual practices like hosting guided meditation sessions, chanting and observing other rituals online.

To make offerings, devotees can make online accounts to donate directly to the temple and pay for items. The site has offered helpful information for staying safe during the “circuit breaker” as well as videos on how to cook vegetarian dishes, and sharing photos of their preparation of Vesak Day (celebrating the enlightenment of the Buddha). The Vesak Day procession, where typically thousands of Buddhists walk and bow around the Kong Men San Phor Kark See Monastery, was instead held though a Zoom session and live-streamed on the Buddhist Youth Network Facebook page. ¬†Over 30 Buddhist families participated in performing this ritual at home together on this Zoom call, inspiring hundreds of others.

As debates rage in the United States and around the world about the best way to manage religious obligations and personal freedoms for the practice of religion even in a time of pandemic, the Singaporean case of regulation across a number of different world faiths can prompt reflection on the balance between personal devotion and community safety.

Author: Camryn Thomas

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