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Archdeacon John Bailey in his church the Holy Trinity Cathedral in New Westminster, B.C. (Lyle Stafford/Lyle Stafford for The Globe and Mail)
Archdeacon John Bailey in his church the Holy Trinity Cathedral in New Westminster, B.C. (Lyle Stafford/Lyle Stafford for The Globe and Mail)

Working to keep the flu out of the pews Add to ...

Peace be with you. Pass the hand sanitizer.

The antiseptic smell of alcohol-based disinfectant has been added to the hallowed traditions of religious ceremony as churches, synagogues and mosques across the country look to protect worshippers from the pandemic influenza virus that has infected thousands and killed more than 3,000 worldwide.

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Modern-day precautions have seeped into century-old traditions: A bow or nod will do for the sign of peace; take a pass on the common cup of wine; a squirt of hand sanitizer at the high altar is no faux pas; and if you're sick, it's not a sin to skip weekend service.

"You don't want to see the breakdown of community because people are terrorized by the possibility they might come down with something when they come to church," said Ven. John Bailey of Holy Trinity Cathedral, an Anglican church in New Westminster, B.C.

Before launching into his sermon, he reminds churchgoers of good hygienic practices. He squirts disinfectant - and makes sure all see - after wishing them the sign of peace. And his church is even looking to add hand sanitizers at the end of each pew, on top of the handful they have scattered around the cathedral.

Archdeacon Bailey said it is customary for priests to wash their hands before handling the bread and wine. "It's always been part of our rite," he said. "Now, we've added in Purell as part of that process."

The H1N1 virus, which has been circulating all summer, has sickened hundreds of students this week at a handful of British Columbia schools - and religious believers are not immune.

Posters signalling the threat of swine flu are displayed all over the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, a mosque that has 500 people on average attending prayer services. Alongside the posters, and on every floor, are hand sanitizer stations.

"We continue to educate people and keep reminding them," spokesman Shakil Akhter said.

Holy Blossom Temple, also in Toronto, went a step further. As many as 5,000 worshippers are moving through the synagogue during the 10-day high holidays. Clergy and staff sent an e-mail to the congregation last week asking those who are sick to stay home, and others to refrain from shaking hands and embracing. Rabbis did not participate in a receiving line at the end of service this past weekend.

The changes raised a few eyebrows, but executive director Benjamin Applebaum said the synagogue has to strike a balance between panicking the congregation and continuing on with its usual religious services.

"We're mindful. We're watching the situation. I think we're taking reasonable precautions," Mr. Applebaum said. "We're advising the congregation, and trying to alert them."

At the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton, some churches have gone so far as to remove the holy water in the fonts.

It's not a recommendation from the bishop. But he has listed six directives to his 122 parishes. Among them: Parishioners should not shake hands during the sign of the peace; communion should be distributed in the hand, not on the tongue; and churchgoers should not drink wine from the cup during the celebration of the Eucharist.

Some felt the diocese was overreacting to a flu that has not killed as many as seasonal influenza; others were appreciative of the efforts. But not everyone has abided by the interim measures.

"It takes time. It's almost like a cultural change," diocese spokesman John O'Brien said. "During the mass you do certain things in a certain manner, because they have a certain symbolism attached to them. We don't want to minimize any of the rich symbolism that we have that's part of the mass.

"At the same time, we want to be prudent in taking precautions in the event that this strain of H1N1, or any other influenza strain for that matter, becomes more dangerous to our parishioners."

 

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