Germany is to set out guidelines for holding religious services during the coronavirus pandemic with a list of strict restrictions expected to include a ban on singing.
Religious services have been banned since the start of Germany’s lockdown in mid-March and some worshippers have expressed fury at the government’s apparent slowness in plotting a route back to reopening churches.
A loosening of restrictions a week ago after Germany’s infection rate decreased sufficiently, saw small shops, along with bicycle repair workshops, car washes and other businesses, able to operate again. But places of worship have not been viewed as such a political priority, despite pleas from religious leaders that spiritual nourishment is as important to many Germans, if not more so, than shopping.
One Catholic community in Berlin, which insisted on continuing to celebrate mass, even took the government to court over the ban.
Angela Merkel, a pastor’s daughter and herself a regular church-goer, will meet the leaders of the country’s 16 states on Thursday to coordinate a nationwide set of rules.
Religious leaders have agreed in advance meetings a set of general rules on strict physical distancing and the prohibition of anything involving bodily fluids, such as kissing religious objects, including the Jewish Torah, or administering communion from hand to mouth. Muslim leaders have agreed a temporary halt to Friday prayers.
Communal singing has reportedly proved to be a particular sticking point in the discussions, despite repeated warnings by leading epidemiologists that singing is as dangerous as coughing for spreading the virus.
Reports around the globe including in Los Angeles, where three-quarters of the members of one choir fell ill and two died, and in Berlin, where 59 out of 78 singers from the choir of Berlin’s Protestant cathedral went down with the virus – have offered plenty of anecdotal evidence that singing in choirs has contributed to the spread of coronavirus in some communities.
Lothar Wieler, the head of the German government’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, specifically warned on Tuesday that singing was ill- advised. “Evidence shows that during singing, the virus drops appear to fly particularly far,” he said.
Virologists also believe singers could absorb many more particles as they tend to breathe deeper into their diaphragms than they would during normal breathing.
A draft bans both communal singing and wind instruments from services over the “amplified precipitation of potentially infectious drops” and while it has been backed in principle by Protestant leaders, who nevertheless wish to draw a distinction between roomy cathedrals and small village churches, Catholic heads are opposed.
“If the distance rules are abided by, there is no reason why singing should be refrained from altogether,” the German Bishops Conference has said in its own position paper. A spokesman added: “We believe quiet singing and praying should be possible.”
It has been argued that the government has been slow to act on church re-openings to ensure police were not overwhelmed when carrying out controls necessitated by a step-by-step easing of restrictions, as well as the nationwide introduction this week of obligatory face coverings.
Priority has been given to Germany’s 30,000 mosques and prayer rooms which have been allowed to open during the month of Ramadan. Muslim worshippers are obliged to wear a mouth and nose covering on entering mosques, and over-65s have been advised to stay away for their own protection. Each worshipper should have at least 10 square metres of space to themselves.
Bavaria, which often takes a singular approach to regulation, allowed church services of under 15 people to resume over a week ago, with the Catholic church issuing seat reservations to regulate the flow of worshippers. Priests are prohibited from administering communion on the tongue and holy water is banned.
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