British Columbia

B.C. faith leaders prepare for winter and Christmas with COVID-19

Dr. Bonnie Henry has restricted gatherings in private homes with Diwali, Christmas and Hannukah right around the corner.

Mass gatherings and gatherings in private homes restricted with sacred holidays just around the corner

Christmas with COVID-19 will mean more online church services and no more than immediate household members plus a "safe six" at holiday or religious gatherings in private homes. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The winter season and some largely-celebrated religious holidays are fast approaching, and B.C. faith leaders are faced with the unique challenge this year of creating a sense of community and spiritual connection, while also trying to keep everyone safe.

They also have to follow some new public health rules.

On Monday, Dr. Bonnie Henry restricted gatherings in private homes to household members plus a "safe six," saying larger groups are too dangerous and that celebrations for Christmas, Hannukah and Diwali should be small and subdued.

The restrictions were announced after Henry reported record-high virus numbers from over the weekend.

Now, with bad weather and big holidays coming, CBC spoke with Mohammad Shujaath Ali, Imam at Vancouver mosque Masjid-ul Haqq, Melissa Skelton, archbishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, and Dan Moskovitz, rabbi at Vancouver's Temple Shalom to hear what they have planned for winter and what they think of Henry's new rule.

Less pressure on leaders

"Honestly, I was relieved," said Moskovitz.

The rabbi said he was recently conflicted when a family invited him to their home for a baby-naming ceremony and out of an abundance of caution he said no. He said the guilt is eased now knowing he is not just following his gut but the doctor's orders.

"I'm glad that she did it and she took a little bit of pressure off of us," said Moskovitz. "I appreciate that."

He said during the summer, Jewish services were offered outdoors but are now all being offered virtually out of an abundance of caution.

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is proposing people celebrating Hannukah this year light candles in honour of those who have helped others during the pandemic. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

For Hannukah, he is proposing his congregates light the menorah candles at their own homes separately but follow the same theme — to honour those who participated in the pandemic response. Like the 7 p.m. cheer, it is something people can collectively participate in while apart.

Ali said he has not heard any concerns from mosque attendees about the new rules restricting gatherings.

Followers of the Islamic faith have already experienced celebrating their holiest days under pandemic restrictions, with Eid al-Fitr having happened in May and Eid al-Adha in August.

People are separated by six feet inside the Al Masjid Al Jamia mosque in Vancouver while praying during the start of Eid al-Adha, the second major Muslim festival after Eid al-Fitr. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In the Muslim faith, group prayer is sometimes required. Ali said virtual services are offered and when gatherings do occur in Muslim places of worship, everyone follows public health protocols.

"They respect the place, because they're in a sacred sanctuary, sacred space," said Ali, adding people are more likely to be vigilant about following protocol in a mosque than at home.

He said everything happens for a reason, and perhaps the pandemic is an opportunity for people to focus on their own family and spirituality —areas that he said may have been lacking in the past.

"As a community, we sympathize with these concerns and we stand by these rules because it is, at the end of the day, in the best interest of everyone," said the imam.

Melissa Skelton, archbishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, suggests small gatherings connected by video. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Skelton, recognizing that Christians will be cut off from large group celebrations during Christmas, said she has already been impressed with how B.C. churches have kept people from feeling isolated during the pandemic.

"I've been amazed at how much the churches have mobilized by phone, by FaceTime, by all these different methods [including] writing cards to keep in touch with those that might be lost in all of this," said Skelton.

She said during the holy holiday people can use technology to stay in touch and can also enjoy the same experiences, such as cooking the same food or saying prayers together over video.

"It's not the same as in person but, boy, it can be a lifeline in this time," she said.

Tap here to listen to Mohammad Shujaath Ali, Dan Moskovitz and Melissa Skelton on The Early Edition.

With files from The Early Edition