TORONTO – It will be an Easter like no other for Roman Catholics and Anglicans in Toronto. The communion cup will not be shared, and the traditional handshake or embrace of peace will be a smile or bow -- all because of the SARS virus.
The precautions recommended by church officials are part of a campaign in Canada's largest city to prevent severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, from spreading further during this week's religious gatherings.
Toronto is the epicenter for the biggest SARS outbreak outside of Asia, where the pneumonia-like illness originated. Almost 250 probable or suspected cases have been reported in the Toronto area, including 13 deaths so far in Canada.
Concern over the continued spread of SARS was raised Monday when officials announced that members of a Catholic religious community were believed to have the illness. All 500 people in the group were told to observe a 10-day home quarantine.
Facing Easter, Passover and other religious observances that bring people together, Ontario provincial Health Minister Tony Clement said Wednesday that everyone must comply with quarantine orders and other steps to contain SARS.
"There can be no shortcuts and there can be no exceptions. To do otherwise is to risk a community outbreak of SARS, which is something we all want to avoid," Clement said. "This is a time when the needs of the community outweigh the needs of one person."
The containment strategy includes isolating SARS patients, cutting public access to hospitals and telling anyone possibly exposed to the illness to go into home quarantine.
While the steps have prevented the illness from spreading widely in the general population so far, officials say the threat of broader contamination continues.
"Our message again is if you're sick, you have a duty to isolate yourself," Clement said.
The Toronto archdiocese advised pastors in a letter this week to take special precautions during Easter services and ask worshippers who feel ill to stay home.
The letter listed several changes in usual practices, including no drinking of wine from the communion chalice or handing over the communion host or kissing the crucifix. It suggested replacing the "salutation of peace" handshake with bowing or some other gesture.
The city's Anglican diocese sent a similar message Wednesday, suspending the drinking of wine by parishioners.
"I am also encouraging congregations to share the peace through words and smiles and similar gestures, rather than hand shakes and hugs," said the memo from Anglican Archbishop Terence E. Finlay.