Live-streamed services and lonely Iftars

by Fleur Stigters 

Coming together is an essential element in every religion. Christians gather during Sunday service, while Muslims pray Jumah together on Fridays. With stay-at-home orders and social distancing in the age of the Coronavirus, coming together is out of the question. How are religions being practised during these uncertain times? 


Instead of going into “hibernation”, many religious communities have expanded their role in the lives of their members. Prominent faith leaders from several religions have turned to theology to provide support for their communities, encouraging them to practice their religion safely. Leaders are providing their communities with documents on how faith practices can be held while implementing social distancing. 


For instance, Pope Francis has moved his weekly service online. Members of the Catholic community are invited to follow live streams of the services, which are held in an almost empty St. Peter’s Basilica. During one of his services, Pope Francis called for unity between religions, saying “Anyone who believes, regardless of religion, has to unite spiritually, to ask God for strength to overcome this pandemic”. 


Although churches are going through a strange period right now, local parishes are coming up with ingenious ideas. The “Ontmoetingskerk”, a Catholic church in the Dutch town of Dieren, has found a way to fill their benches. Where worshippers once sat, now printed-out selfies of the churchgoers fill the empty spaces. This way the local priest is not talking to an empty church during the live stream. 


Not only Christians are affected by the Corona crisis, but the community that is going through most changes recently is the Islamic community. Ramadan started on 23 April and ended on the 23 May. It is a time in which the whole Islamic community is coming together, not only spiritually but also in person. As all gatherings were cancelled during this time, coming together was out of the question. Muslims were thus unable to pray together, eat together or celebrate Eid-al-Fitr. 


“Western people often think that the main purpose of Ramadan is withholding yourself from food,” Fabienne Steenwinkel (21) says. According to the converted Muslima, Ramadan is so much more than not eating. “Ramadan is a time of reflection, self-improvement, heightened devotion to Allah and coming together as a Muslim community,” she says. This is now dramatically different during the age of Corona. 


Not eating and drinking while the sun is up is already difficult enough, but as a converted Muslim in an atheist household, it is even tougher. “During past Ramadans, I was most of the times at houses of my Muslim friends, not because my parents don’t support me, but because it is easier to share my experiences with them”, Fabienne says. Now that there are strict rules by the government, this is barely possible. 


“I’m now most of the time at home, which can be very difficult because I feel like the days are going by extremely slowly,” she says, continuing to tell about the challenges she faces, “I was already bored during quarantine without Ramadan, but now I am not even physically able to do anything because I’m tired of not eating. It is really difficult for me right now.” The thing that keeps Fabienne going are her friends. “Some friends I do see, and I fast with them, even my non-Muslim friends joined me so that I don’t feel alone,” she says, adding “As Ramadan is a time to really reflect, I really discovered my true friends.” 


Another important element to Ramadan is Iftar. Iftar is done when the sun has set, and Muslims are finally able to consume food and drinks. Normally this is done in great groups and multiple families. Now, Fabienne spends Iftar alone. “I don’t feel sad, but it is just different, and I have no one to share my happiness with. Of course, I can facetime friends, but it is just not the same,” she says.


Furthermore, praying together is very important, especially the evening prayers. The evening prayers are the most visited prayers of the day in the mosques during Ramadan. “Visiting a mosque is out of the question now, you have to do all your prayers alone,” Fabienne says. In an all-Muslim household, this is nothing new, as they do this all year round but for Fabienne, it is a challenge in itself. “My sleep schedule is completely different from my family, I have to wake up alone in the middle of the night to pray, that takes the biggest toll on me as I feel super lonely,” she says. Luckily, she calls her Muslim friends during the night, to keep her awake and to keep her company. 


Although every religion is going through major shifts right now, faith stays the same. That goes both for Christians and Muslims alike. “Limitations can also be a lesson,” Fabienne says. She cherishes the smaller things in life and the little moments with her friends. She says, “Everything is a blessing or a lesson, and if you don’t learn a lesson out of the current situation, will you ever?”