Ottawans of various faiths are marking Easter, Passover and Ramadan this weekend without significant public health restrictions for the first time since the start of the COVID pandemic.
Sikander Hashmi, an imam at the Kanata Muslim Association, says he’s looking forward to a return to more familiar celebrations for Eid al-Fitr, which closes out Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that started on April 2 and runs until May 1.
“(It) starts off with prayers in the morning, people wearing their best clothes, a lot of handshakes and hugging that did not happen for the last two years. So I think that will probably be back this year. It’s just a very celebratory environment.”
In addition to Ramadan, Easter and Passover celebrations are also taking place over the long weekend. These religious events typically take place in the spring, meaning they were among the first high-profile celebrations curtailed after the pandemic was declared in March 2020.
In 2021, Ontario was in the grasp of a severe COVID wave leading to the reinstatement of stringent public health measures that again prevented large, in-person gatherings for these religious celebrations.
This year’s Easter, Passover and Ramadan celebrations will likely look a lot more similar to pre-COVID events, though, since Ontario dropped most public health restrictions in late March.
It’s welcome news to many religious leaders, who had to pivot and find creative ways to keep their communities engaged during COVID lockdowns.
“We had to shift all of our services to online services,” said Ezekiel Nkongolo, senior pastor at an Ottawa evangelical church, the Worshippers Gathering.
“When people are in a service, they participate actively. When it came to online services, it meant we did not have that same kind of interaction. Many of my members expressed having increased anxiety, stress.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Hashmi.
“One of the things we were worried about is that people would be worried about losing their sense of community during the pandemic.”
Hashmi said he knew he quickly he would have to adjust to the ever-changing circumstances caused by the first COVID-19 wave in 2020, adding his mosque was the first in Ottawa to suspend Friday prayers because of the virus.
As a spiritual leader, he sought to keep the community engaged through Zoom prayer meetings, which continued through Ramadan.
Prior to the pandemic, followers would gather daily to pray together, but during the COVID lockdowns Hashmi hosted an online program that was broadcast every day before sunset, when the Ramadan fast broke. Afterwards, the mosque would hold quizzes and prize draws. Families would watch on screens as they prepared meals.
Though the mosque has again opened its doors, Hashmi said the online concept was so well-received by the community that it has been continued.
“We did a Ramadan feedback survey to see what people were looking forward to, and they actually wanted to continue even though we were opened up. So we’re still doing it, just not everyday.”
Members of the Kehillat Beth Israel synagogue also had to make adjustments to Passover celebrations because of the pandemic.
“Passover is already largely a home-based holiday. The Passover meal, which is called the seder, is usually done in people’s homes and families gather together,” senior rabbi Eytan Kenter said.
“One of the things that was most painful of the pandemic period was the inability of those families to gather together and to be able to celebrate together.”
During COVID lockdowns, Kenter said he made sure to emphasize to his community that physical gatherings were not the only way to remain connected and to appreciate one another.
“It’s not just about coming together in joy, but being together and supporting each other as we deal with the hardest challenges of our lives.”
With the pandemic restrictions moved, many are excited for the return of in-person celebrations of these important religious events.
Nkongolo and the team at his church are all set to celebrate this Easter Sunday. “We already have our small glasses, non-alcoholic wine, and small bread.”
For Reverend Michelle Terwilleger and the congregation at St. Peter & St Paul’s Anglican Church, this weekend’s Good Friday service was a long time coming.
“In 2020, all of this was just online. Last year, we shortened the service. So, this year, to have our full Good Friday service is a highlight for a lot of people,” she said.
“For some people, this is their favourite service. So, to be able to have as many people who want to attend, be able to attend and be able to come together and remember that Jesus died for us, to remember His love for us, as a community, to sing together, and of course on Sunday to celebrate his resurrection is wonderful, it’s glorious.”