RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Schools, we know, are welcoming environments for swine flu. So too are houses of worship. The rituals and warm handshakes make them fertile ground for virus transmission. That's forcing religious leaders to rethink how they carry out their services, as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
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BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Let's take a tour of a Catholic church through the eyes of the H1N1 virus. Stop number one - the font with holy water near the church entrance. It's a great place for the virus to leap from one person to another, says Bishop Mitch Rozanski of Baltimore.
Bishop MITCH ROZANSKI: If someone has the germ on their hand, dips it into the holy water font, people come after them and dip their hands into it, the germ can be spread that way.
HAGERTY: Next stop, the passing of the peace, when people shake hands, another favorite place for the virus. And then there's communion.
Unidentified Man: He broke the bread. Gave it to his disciples and said, Take this all of you and eat it.
HAGERTY: The priest puts the host, or wafer, on a parishioner's tongue or into his hand, then does the same for the next person. Often, he then serves wine from a common cup. It's wiped clean each time, but that is no guarantee it's virus-free. Bishop Rozanski says these rituals have prompted a flood of questions.
Bishop ROZANSKI: How should we deal with the distribution of holy communion? Should we stop shaking hands at the sign of peace? Should we take the holy water out of the holy water fonts as soon as the flu season begins?
HAGERTY: Right now he's just asking priests to use lots of hand sanitizer. But the bishop says a word from health officials that a pandemic has started would trigger all of these precautions and could lead him to shut down churches.
Like Bishop Rozanski, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Massachusetts has been thinking about swine flu a lot lately. The High Holy Days begin Friday, and he expects about 900 people at services. He'll ask his congregants to greet each other a little differently this year.
Rabbi MOSHE WALDOKS (Temple Beth Zion): Bowing to each other in a sort of a little Buddhist bow or the Obama fist bump could really be very good.
HAGERTY: And what about passing the Torah around the congregation? Some people kiss it, while others touch their prayer shawls to it.
Rabbi WALDOKS: I might say before we walk around with it, if you have any concerns about stuff, maybe this year offer a wave instead of a kiss. I'm sure the Torah will understand.
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HAGERTY: For Muslims, Friday prayers are the centerpiece of the faith and a potential viral hotbed. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia says 3,000 people come to worship there each week.
Imam JOHARI ABDUL-MALIK (Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center): They stand shoulder to shoulder. They put their faces on the carpet and remember someone's going to come behind them and prostrate with their face on the carpet.
HAGERTY: Malik says if flu breaks out, the leaders may ask people to bring their own prayer rugs. They may tell people to spread out more when they pray and they might amend the ritual cleansing before prayer, in which people visit a special washroom where they gargle and wash their feet.
The imam says people are loath to change these rituals because they're so deeply rooted in the Quran.
Imam MALIK: How do you now convince them that what they used to do is now not permissible?
HAGERTY: For example, he says, the Quran says when two believers shake hands in greeting, their sins fall away. Some people may feel cheated of blessing if they have to stop that practice.
Imam MALIK: Nobody wants to shake your hand. Nobody's going to embrace you. You start saying, What's going on? What kind of place is this? Where are the blessings? And you have to say, Today the blessing is in resisting shaking hands.
HAGERTY: The imam says his job is to show believers that the Quran allows for extraordinary measures to protect life, and God will pour blessing on those who sacrifice their own worship for the good of others.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And on our Web site, Npr.org, we offer some hands-free greetings for flu season. You can also read about the latest prognosis for the health care debate.
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