The Standing Committee of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod, chaired by Pope Tawadros II, convened this morning Saturday 27 June 2020 to look into the matter of reopening churches. Coptic churches in Egypt have been closed since 21 March 2020 as a cautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19.
The outcome of the Holy Synod 27 June meeting was the following statement:
“To everything there is a season; a time for every purpose under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
“In the context of following up on the health situation and the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, and in light of the recent decisions by the Prime Minister, the Standing Committee of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod has convened through videoconference on Saturday 27 June 2020, chaired by Pope Tawadros II.
“Given the disparate figures of high, medium or low levels of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the various parishes, the committee sees that every Bishop should assess, together with the priest assembly of his diocese, whether the health conditions in the parish call for suspending the celebration of Mass in churches for two or more weeks, or for gradual reopening of churches while fully implementing all cautionary health restrictions with utmost seriousness.
“All prayer and worship is suspended on Fridays and Sundays in all parishes of the See of St Mark, in compliance with the Cabinet’s decision.
“In case any diocese decides upon gradual opening of churches, we advise adherence to all the directions that will be shortly issued in a separate memorandum.
“As to the parish of Cairo and Alexandria (the diocese of Pope Tawadros) which is currently witnessing high numbers of COVID-19 cases, churches will remain closed until mid-July, following which the situation would be reassessed.
“As an exception, Mass will be celebrated on the Feast of the Apostles [12 July] to a limited number of 25 persons, and in compliance with all health cautionary measures.
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame (Thessalonians 5:23).”
Later in the day, the Holy Synod issued the memorandum that cited the necessary directions for reopening churches. It included 29 items that read as follows:
Sunday School service, as well as all prayer meetings and service activities in all forms are to remain suspended in all dioceses without exception.
Funerals may be attended by only the family members of the deceased.
Matrimony ceremonies may be attended by only six persons in addition to the priest, deacon, and bride and groom.
During the time Mass is celebrated, rest rooms should be closed, and social distancing should be respected in church canteens and bookshops.
Mass should be celebrated by only one priest, four deacons inside and outside the sanctuary, and 20 members of the congregation; this brings up the number of persons in Mass to 25. If health conditions stabilise, this number may be increased two weeks later.
More than one Mass may be held daily in the same church, applying cautionary measures.
The priest officiating Mass should wash with water the holy vessels and utensils once Communion is over, and alone drink the water.
Masses in every church are scheduled ahead, in order to provide equal opportunity of prayer to all members of the congregation.
Every church should form a committee that includes doctors among its members, to be tasked with implementing health cautionary measures and ensuring these measures are respected by everyone.
The church scouts should be tasked with monitoring the entry and exit of worshippers, making sure that the persons going in are those who have been scheduled to attend Mass. They should supervise the sanitisation and disinfection procedures, and check that worshippers comply with cautionary restrictions. They should also don suitable protective clothes.
Every worshipper should have his or her personal corporal and water bottle, and the women their personal head scarves. These items should be for personal use, and should not be shared. Churches should refrain from providing them to the congregation.
Every person entering church should wear a mask, whether going in to attend Mass or for any other purpose.
Those entering church should have their temperature checked with remote temperature checking devices.
Worshippers should undergo rapid disinfection once they arrive at the church gate. Their shoes should be disinfected with a small cloth dipped in chloride solution, and their hands with 70 per cent alcohol solution. Everyone is required to fully cooperate with the team charged with sanitisation.
Handshakes or any greetings that involve closeness or touching are banned in church, including greeting priests or greetings among priests. It should be sufficient for everyone to greet others while keeping a distance.
A safe distance of 2 metres should be observed between persons in church, between the priest, deacons, and congregation participating in worship.
It is preferable to mark the seats allotted to each of the 25 persons taking part in worship, in order to ensure safe social distancing.
The place used for prayer should be well aerated; windows and doors should be kept open to make for good air circulation.
A separate microphone should be allotted to the priest and the four deacons participating in Mass. The microphones should be sanitised before and after Mass; no sharing of microphones is allowed.
Every worshipper should use the mobile phone applications for ritual prayers instead of the books in church (apart from the Katamares [on the pulpit]).
A person partaking of Communion may in no way come close to the priest or talk to him even for confession or absolution, in order not to breach social distancing.
It is banned to offer worshippers the eulogy bread following Mass, or the qorbana blessing at any time in church.
All worshippers should leave the church directly, without crowding, once Mass is over. The church scouts are to carefully monitor that. The priest should perform no pastoral service to any of the worshippers after Mass.
Once Mass is over and the worshippers have left, the sanitisation team should disinfect the church completely.
Should any of the worshippers attending Mass be suspected of having been infected with COVID-19, the priest should be directly informed. He should in turn inform the bishop in order to take the necessary measures.
Anyone whether priests, deacons, or congregation members suffering from the following symptoms should stay away from church absolutely. The symptoms are: fever, even if slight; diarrhea; inflammation of the throat; body pain; respiratory difficulties; and immunity issues that would make COVID-19 life threatening. This applies also to those who came in contact with persons infected or suspected to be infected with COVID-19.
Anyone who has an immunodeficiency condition may arrange with the priest to give him or her Communion in church or at home. The priest should apply all necessary cautionary measures when giving Communion to the sick at home.
Priests who suffer chronic diseases that place them at high risk of CIVID-19 infection, or who have family members that are also high risk patients, may refrain from celebrating Mass during this exceptional period of time [of COVID-19 pandemic].
Priests should go on taking care of the congregation through alternative means such as telephones and social media.
27 June 2020