For 55-year-old Coptic housewife Magda Mounir, knowing she can no longer pray at her local church is worse than all the precautions she has had to endure to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in Egypt.
“The church is our haven; it is where we go to find moral support,” Mounir told Al-Monitor a few days after Egypt closed all places of worship, including mosques and churches.
The Ministry of Religious Endowments, more often referred to as the Awqaf Ministry, and Egypt's Orthodox Christian Church both released statements March 21 announcing they would temporarily halt communal prayers.
In multicultural and multifaith Egypt, Christians make up roughly 10% of the country's 100 million-plus population, with the vast majority of Christians in Egypt belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
"The holy week is coming, and we used to spend these days in the church. It seems this year we will not be able to do so for the first time in our lives," Mounir said tearfully, referring to the Easter holiday on April 19.
Sandy Emad, a 27-year-old engineer, supports the ministry's decision. “I support the decision [to close places of worship], and I can't understand the anger of some people,” she told Al-Monitor. “We can't kill ourselves and our families and say God will rescue us. God gave us brains to use and protect ourselves from any harm. This is what he ordered us to do," Emad said.
"This decision is considered the most difficult decision the church has made in decades,” admitted Bishop Boules Boutros of St. Michael Church in the district of Heliopolis in Cairo. “However, it is necessary for slowing down the rapid spread of the coronavirus. God does not only exist in churches; we all have him in our hearts and can pray to him to heal the whole world,” Boutros said.
Boutros said he was not sure just how long the churches would remain closed, but it was unlikely they would be opened in time for Easter mass.
Egypt’s Awqaf Ministry decided to suspend congressional Friday prayers in all mosques nationwide until further notice. The suspension came after controversy erupted over Muslim worshippers insisting on flocking to mosques for Friday's noon prayers despite a religious edict allowing people to pray at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"If it was necessary to shut mosques because of the crowd, why not close down the underground, which carries thousands every day?" Mohamed Abdel Monem, a 45-year-old Arabic teacher, said to Al-Monitor. “Now is the time most people need to resort to God and pray. Praying to God is our only way out of this ordeal,” he added.
But not everyone shares his views. Hassan Khaled, a 28-year-old graphic designer, agreed with the decision to shutter holy places. “Given that people insisted on going to the mosques despite the call to stay home, it is a wise decision to close down mosques,” he said. “If only one person is carrying the virus, thousands will be infected, and then they go home to infect their families,” Khaled added.
Khaled said while it is difficult to be deprived of places of worship during times like these, he also understands it is necessary for public health. “I imagine people will resort to praying in open areas if [prayers in mosques] continue to be banned," he said.
Religion plays a major role in Egyptian society, so statements by religious authorities carry major weight on keeping people at home. Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s body responsible for issuing religious edicts, issued March 24 a brief statement warning that “any call for people to gather in the streets in any pretext or under a slogan" would be sinful as it would jeopardize public health.
The statement stressed it is a “duty” under Sharia law to comply with official decisions to “protect people from epidemics and diseases.”
The Awqaf Ministry also modified the adhan — the Muslim call to prayer — to include warnings to stay at home and take precautions on preventing the spread of the coronavirus. The new adhan, broadcast on radio and television a day after religious sites were closed, urges believers to take “the utmost caution in adhering to preventive and precautionary" measures.
Islamic scholars say the special adhan was previously used during natural disasters and pandemics as well as in earlier times in Islam's history when people were instructed to perform prayers at home.
Meanwhile, Minister of Endowments Muhammad Mukhtar Juma suspended on March 22 an imam and a preacher in Beni Suef governorate, south of Cairo, for violating the ministry’s order to close mosques. The two men were banned from giving sermons from the pulpit for a period of three months.
"Preserving life is a main aspect of Islam, and the faithful should comply with preventive measures taken by the government," Sheikh Mohammed Mehana of Al-Azhar University told Al-Monitor.
"The images of empty mosques would break any Muslim's heart, but the priority now is to save people's lives. This is what Allah asked us to do, and the rest is his will,” said Mehana, adding he hoped the crisis would end before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which starts on April 24 and goes until May 23, and that everybody would reunite for Taraweeh, the additional prayers carried out at night during Ramadan.
The Ministry of Health has reported some 609 cases of coronavirus and 40 deaths in Egypt so far.
A 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew has been imposed countrywide as part of strict measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly said March 23.
All masses as well as public and private transport are suspended during the curfew.