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Keeping The Faith: How Limits On Gathering Size Are Affecting Places Of Worship

As businesses, governments and schools scramble to curtail the fatal impact of COVID-19, so too are Australia's largest religious organisations.

The Catholic church -- which has the largest religious following according to the 2016 Census -- has moved to limit Sydney mass attendees to no more than 100 people.

"Priests have been granted permission to temporarily increase the number of Masses and celebrate multiple Sunday Masses as necessary to accommodate these changes," Archbishop of Sydney, Most Rev. Anthony Fisher told churches and schools on Thursday.

In his statement, Archbishop Fisher said priests will continue to serve the sick and elderly, even if they have a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Parishioners who are unwell are asked to stay home and pray instead.

Reverend Anthony Fisher, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. Image: Getty Images

The Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge has opted to close church doors.

"The celebration of Mass on Sundays (including the Saturday vigil) is suspended with immediate effect and until further notice, and all the faithful are dispensed from the Sunday obligation," he said in a statement. 

Melbourne's Archbishop Peter Andrew Comensoli has taken the same stance as his Brisbane counterpart.

Perth has also followed suit but will revise its stance in two weeks.

Other Christian denominations

More than half of the Australian population declared some variety of Christianity to the Australian Beauru of Statistics in 2016.

Anglican and Uniting Church are the two next most common.

The two major denominations, Anglican and Catholic, account for 36 percent of the Australian population.

The Anglican church does not have a blanket rule in place regarding mass.

Some parishes have put an end to physical services of worship and other activities.

"These decisions are made on the basis of the risks posed to the general public. The Diocese believes that at this stage it is important that all parishes abide by the direction of Government and Health Authorities, but in doing so it is not necessary to consider the closure of all parishes at this time," the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne said on its website. 

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Whereas the Uniting Church has made the move to online services only.

"All of New South Wales and Queensland are now providing masses and prayer groups and other services online," Rev Rod Pattenden from Adamstown Uniting Church told 10 daily.

On Monday, the Hillsong Church, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been associated with over the years, moved its worship to online.

Their Sydney venue can fit a congregation of 2000.

"These are challenging days personally, for all of us, but also for our church," Pastor Brian Houston said in a post on social media.

Mosques

Mosques around the country will also face unprecedented shutdowns due to the Federal Government’s latest mass gatherings bans. Around 2.6 percent of Australians identified as Muslim in the most recent Census.

Australia's largest mosque in Lakemba, south west of Sydney, attracts thousands of worshipers for Friday prayers.

On Wednesday the The Lebanese Muslim Association (LMA) said all mosque-related activity will be suspended until further notice.

A spokesperson for the LMA said this decision was based on one of the fundamental principles in Islam, which is to protect human life.

“The position of El Fatwa in Lebanon and ministries of religious affairs in various Muslim countries has also been taken into account,” the LMA said.

The Australian Fatwa Council issues a notice to all mosques around the country urging for Muslims to prayer at home and not attend mosques.

Synagogues 

People affiliated with Judaism account for less than one percent of the Australian population, however the largest local synagogue attracts more than 3,500 members.

Emmanuel Synagogue Sydney. Image: Facebook

Vic Alhadeff, CEO, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies said the Torah teaches us all the importance of compassion, care and community.

"Almost all synagogues in Sydney have closed, the Jewish Museum is also closed, although a couple of smaller mosques remain open," Aldaheff told 10 daily.

Additionally, Aldaheff said for the first time ever the Holocaust commemorative event -- scheduled for April 19 and 20 -- has been cancelled.

"The synagogue closures are decided state by state, but they are closed in Victoria which is where Australia's other large Jewish community is," he said.

As well as praying at home and joining online, worshippers across all denominations are encouraged to meet in small groups to pray and discuss the teachings of their faiths.

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Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au