LONDON (Reuters) - Faith groups in Britain are adapting their religious rites in a bid to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus during worship.
Some churches, mosques and temples are encouraging less personal contact between worshippers, and adapting rites such as sharing of vessels or chalices during ceremonial practices across Britain where 31 people have died in the pandemic.
People vulnerable to the virus, known as swine flu, are being discouraged by imams from attending this year's haj Muslim pilgrimage.
The virus can be spread through contact with infected people and surfaces, and the government has issued public advice including washing hands regularly.
"The 'Sign of Peace,' which traditionally involves people greeting each other by shaking hands, might in extreme cases need to be replaced by another form like bowing so you are not actually touching someone's hand," said a spokesman for the Westminster diocese of the Roman Catholic Church.
Decisions are being taken on a local basis on what modifications to make, depending on the severity of cases in the area, faith leaders said.
Anglican worshippers can choose whether to sip from the chalice, a communal goblet that symbolizes the blood of Christ, during communion, or dip their bread into the wine which reduces a higher risk of disease transmission.
"Before we distribute bread at communion we use an alcohol gel on our hands as you would do now if you are visiting hospitals," said Reverend Gavin Collins, Church of England vicar at Christ Church in Chorleywood, in southern England.
"It is to show people we are being aware and responsible but hopefully not hyping it and putting fear into people."
Mosques and imams across Britain are trying to raise awareness of swine flu with advice being issued in weekly Friday prayers.
Dr. Shuja Shafi, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he agreed with recommendations from health officials at a conference in Saudi Arabia that vulnerable groups of people, such as the severely ill, elderly, pregnant women and children, should avoid participating in the haj pilgrimage this year.
"I think that is sensible advice and we concur with this," he said.
The Hindu forum of Britain also urged caution for people attending public gatherings.
"Sharing of common vessels for food and drink should be avoided. For example, the sharing of cups and spoons for performing water rituals ... ," it said on its website.
The level of hygiene at Jewish summer camps for children and young people had been increased, Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism in London, said.