Nigerian Churches Risk Spreading Ebola Through Communion by Tongue, Sharing Peace

( [email protected] ) Sep 18, 2014 12:19 PM EDT
Ebola Virus
A Liberian woman stands as health workers wearing protective clothing prepare to carry an abandoned dead body presenting with Ebola symptoms at Duwala market in Monrovia August 17, 2014. (Reuters)

As the deadly Ebola virus devastates Western Africa, Nigerian churches are risking the spread of the deadly disease through the way clergy administers Holy Communion, the Nigerian Guardian reports.

As the Ebola virus, which is spread through body fluids, began infecting large parts of Nigeria, both Anglican and Catholic Church leaders were advised against the typical manner in which churches administered communion. Such practices included placing the Communion wafer directly into the parishioner's mouths, the entire congregation drinking from the same Communion cup, and priest breaking and dividing the bread with their bare hands.

In a statement in August, Alfred Adewale Martins, the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos said: "We have now deemed it necessary to permit in the interim the reception of Holy Communion in the hand as an extraordinary practice while the Ebola Virus alert is on. We maintain however, that in the Archdiocese of Lagos, the ordinary way of receiving Holy Communion remains Communion-on-the-tongue."

However, he added that those who wished to continue to receive communion on the tongue, should be allowed to do so, saying: "Their personal devotion to the Eucharist must be respected."

The Archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan also instructed congregations to avoid shaking hands in the sharing of the peace, and the Anglican Primate of the Church of Nigeria, the Most Rev Nicholas Okoh warned that Anglican churches should no longer drink from the same cup. He told churches to instead dip the bread into wine, or individual cups.

However, the Guardian reports that "most churches are yet to make any changes" to the way they administer the sacrament.

"Tradition is very precious in Nigerian churches, it's very spiritualized," explained Dr. Walter Smith, who works as a missionary in Nigeria.

"To suddenly change what they've done for hundreds of years is very counterintuitive, regardless of the cost."

The highly infectious disease has killed an estimated 2,630 people in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, Reuters reports.

The current outbreak, thought to have started in December, 2013, "is an exponential crisis that demands an exceptional global response," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told a Sept. 16 news conference.

On Tuesday, President Obama announced that the U.S. government will send 3,000 military personnel and an upwards of $75 million to West Africa to combat the disease.

"This is a daunting task, but here's what gives us hope," Obama stated.

"The world knows how to fight this disease. It's not a mystery. We know the science. We know how to prevent it from spreading. We know how to care for those who contract it. We know that if we take the proper steps, we can save lives. But we have to act fast," he continued.

"We can't dawdle on this one. We have to move with force and make sure that we are catching this as best we can, given that it has already broken out in ways that we have not seen before."