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Coronavirus unlikely to deter Arab American Christians from celebrating Easter

This Easter, many Arab Christian churches are relying on the social media platform Facebook to live-stream their services
Arab American Christian leaders say many of their parishioners will also stay at home and follow holy week services via the Internet

CHICAGO: Arab American Christians are preparing to celebrate Easter, one of their most important religious holidays, under a cloud of concern caused by a combination of the deadly coronavirus pandemic and Internet connectivity issues.
A study by personal finance website WalletHub found that only half of American Christians who went to church for Easter services last year intended to try to attend Easter services this year.
Arab American Christian leaders say many of their parishioners will also stay at home and follow holy week services via the Internet.
Restrictions required to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), notably social distancing and stopping at home, have placed huge constraints on the Arab Christian faithful, who unofficially number about 3 million.
Many churches have announced they would be closed for services on their premises.
“We are struggling like everyone in this pandemic,” said Pastor Hesham Shehab of Salam Christian Fellowship church, based in Lombard, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
“We have joined with another American Christian pastor and we do a bilingual service in English and Arabic for our three churches together.”
In common with people of other faiths, including Jews who are celebrating Passover this week, and Muslims who will soon mark the holy month of Ramadan, most of Easter religious services for Arab Christians are being conducted over the Internet with the help of the video and audio features of Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram and Zoom.
“The weekly services are not working well online,” Shehab said. “But we do daily sharing using WhatsApp. We share prayers, sing Arabic hymns and we do Bible studies together.”
Pastor Fady Ghobrial of the Arabic Baptist Church of Boston said that one upside of the pandemic is that he has seen an increase in the number of people reaching out to the church.
“The pandemic has affected us, as it has many churches, in that we are unable to hold our regular in-person services. While that has been a challenge for all churches, we are blessed enough to have been ahead of the curve on the technology front, since we have been live-streaming and recording our worship services for years,” said Pastor Fady Ghobrial.
“We have seen, as a result of the pandemic and the inability to travel or congregate, that our viewership and online participation in our virtual services has grown. We have continued to host online services in the meantime, have done our best to continue to minister to people virtually through our weekly online services and online prayer meeting.”
Traditional Arab Christian denominations, such as Catholic, Lutheran and Baptists, will celebrate Easter on Sunday, April 12.
Orthodox Arab Christians – namely, Coptic Christians from Egypt and Orthodox Christians from Palestine, Jordan and Syria – will celebrate Easter one week later, according to the old Julian calendar, on Sunday, April 19.
Most services are bilingual – in English and Arabic.
This Easter, many Arab Christian churches are relying on the social media platform Facebook to live-stream their services.
These include the Christian Arabic church in Anaheim, California, which recently sent out a bulletin telling its parishioners: “As the county and state Safer-at-Home directives to help protect Californians and slow the spread of the virus require us to remain at home, all church activities and gatherings will remain suspended until further notice.
“We will continue to broadcast live on Facebook and hold prayer meetings by phone whenever possible.”
Although there is no official census count of Arab Americans, the US Census Bureau estimates there are about 2 million Arabs living in the US, with Christians forming 75 percent and Muslims 25 percent.
Arab Christian community activists believe the actual number of Arab Americans is closer to 4.5 million, of whom about 3 million are Christians.
That estimate does not include “Middle East Christians” with origins in Arab countries but who do not identify themselves as “Arab.”
Middle East Christians speak Arabic and embrace Arab culture, but consider themselves to be Phoenicians, or Maronite Catholics from Lebanon, or Assyrians.
The last group, who see themselves as connected to the Assyrian Empire of more than 4,000 years ago and include Chaldean Catholics, came to the US from Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.
Among those who celebrate Easter in Arab churches in the US are also Armenian Americans, whose ancestors fled persecution in Turkey in the early 20th century and settled in Arab countries.
Despite differences in origin, Arab Christians and Middle East Christians often worship together in the same churches on the basis of their common Arabic language.
But this year, they are being told that they need not attend the physical mass that will be held at their local churches. Instead, they are being offered online options to pray, sing and watch religious ceremonies.
The Heart of Jesus Maronite Catholic Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is hosting Easter services online in English and Arabic. But the Palm Sunday online services held on April 5 did not go as well as had been planned.
“We had some technical issues live-streaming our Palm Sunday Mass. I am truly sorry for the inconvenience,” said Chorbishop Michael G. Thomas, the vicar general and chancellor.
“Our next live-stream is scheduled for holy Thursday at 7 p.m. God willing, all of our issues will be resolved by then. They didn’t teach us this stuff when we studied theology in the seminary.”
St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in the Chicago suburb of Palos Heights has been using Zoom to live-stream not only church services but also programs such as Bible studies and other activities for young and old.
Church leaders have asked their congregations through their newsletters and emails to contact them for the links to the services.
“We have gone virtual with many, many things, including our upcoming Palm Sunday and holy week services next week,” said St. Mary’s Father Mousa Haddad.
He added that they were becoming ever more reliant at this time on Facebook to minister to their congregation, which consists mostly of immigrants from Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon.
Another church, St. Sharbel Catholic Church in Portland, Oregon, was streaming its services online on YouTube.
No matter how they celebrate, in their homes as a family, online or in person at their churches, Arab American Christians all follow basic traditions to mark the day when they believe Jesus was resurrected after being crucified by the Romans.
Like their brethren in the Holy Land, they recognize the two days before Easter as Al-Juma’ Al-Hazena (Sad Friday, the Friday Jesus was crucified) and Sabt Al-Noor (Bright Saturday). Easter Sunday is called Ahad Al-Suroor (Happy Sunday).
On Easter Sunday the traditional greeting for an Arab Christian is, “Christ has risen.”
The COVID-19 outbreak in the US has hampered many traditional Christian traditions besides Easter, including those involving funerals.
Several Arab Americans in the states of Illinois, Michigan, Texas, California, New York and Florida have been identified as victims of COVID-19.
Traditional burial services and wakes have been banned and restricted to in-car processions originating in funeral homes and ending in cemeteries.