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Religious groups across the country are urging houses of worship to take special precautions this weekend, including changing sacred practices, as the swine flu outbreak threatens to grow into a global pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 109 confirmed cases of the virus in 11 states on Thursday (April 30), and the World Health Organization raised its alert level on swine flu to Phase 5.
The highest alert level, Phase 6, indicates that a pandemic is in progress. Should the outbreak reach that stage, the WHO may discourage or even ban public gatherings such as religious services, according to published reports.
In Mexico, where the outbreak is believed to have begun, many Catholic churches have temporarily closed. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is not encouraging similar steps for the 18,000 U.S. parishes. But it is stressing increased attention to hygiene and urging priests and others who distribute Communion to wash their hands with anti-bacterial solutions before Mass.
“(T)he need for the introduction of widespread liturgical adaptations for the prevention of the transmission of influenza in the dioceses of the (U.S.) is not evident at this time,” the bishops conference said. The conference issued similar guidelines after the bird flu outbreak in 2006 and SARS in 2003.
Even so, individual Catholic bishops in some hard-hit areas are taking additional precautions. Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, Texas, where 26 cases of swine flu infection have been confirmed, has asked priests not to offer Communion wine at Mass “until more is known about the virus.”
“It seems that having the public drink from the chalice is an unnecessary risk,” Aymond wrote in a public letter on Wednesday (April 29). Aymond also said that holy water from church entrances should be disposed of and the containers washed and disinfected before being refilled.
Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, and Catholic officials in Chicago and Green Bay, Wis., have offered similar advice. Some Catholics are also asking parishioners not to shake hands during the passing of the peace.
A Dallas official said that “members of our congregations should not be offended at this time if someone chooses not to shake the other person’s hand at the sign of peace.” Health experts say that viruses are often spread through person-to-person contact.
Catholic officials also urge parishioners to stay home if they feel ill, despite the expectation that faithful Catholics should attend Mass every Sunday. “It is not sinful to miss Mass if you are sick,” Aymond wrote, “it is an act of charity.”
Meanwhile, University United Methodist Church in San Antonio has ordered special, individually-wrapped Communion elements for this Sunday.
“This is, admittedly, a rarely-used alternative,” said the church’s directing pastor, Charles Anderson, “but your comfort at Communion is totally worth it.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, meanwhile, is encouraging imams to stay current with news of the spread of swine flu in their areas, and to consider canceling gatherings at mosques — even otherwise obligatory Friday group prayers — to ward off potential infections.
CAIR also says imams should “stress the possibility of temporarily avoiding Islamic cultural traditions such as handshakes or hugs of greeting during a local health crisis.”
“Imams, because of their access to those attending mosques every day, are well-placed to offer advice to community members based on input from public health authorities,” said Nihad Awad, CAIR’s executive director.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas postponed its Bible Drill finals, which had been planned for this weekend, until “we know our children can gather in a healthy environment,” said Dickie Dunn, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Meanwhile, dozens of Christian schools — including the nation’s largest Catholic high school, St. Francis Preparatory School in New York City — have been shuttered because of swine flu outbreaks, according to public reports.
Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, a state with 50 confirmed cases of the virus, said decisions on whether to change Mass practices depends “on good sense of the people and the judgment of the pastor.”
“We’re reminding pastors of the common-sense guidelines we ask them to follow during flu season,” said Zwilling.
Despite concerns over the Communion chalice used to distribute wine, one 2000 study by a Canadian cardiologist suggests it may not be as unsanitary as expected.
“For the average communicant it would seem that the risk of drinking from the common cup is probably less than the risk of air-borne infection in using a common building,” Dr. David Gould concluded.
By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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