Since December 2019 the Pandemic has killed more than 3.63 lakh people across the globe. The epicentre of new cases and resultant casualties have shifted from Asia (China) to Europe (Italy and Spain) and to North America (the United States). This is possible due to the most intense human interconnectivity – politically, economically and electronically – that we have ever seen in history.
The danger level of the COVID-19 virus has today put much of the world into total lockdown mode. Religious and cultural establishments have not been spared by its impact. The highly contagious nature of the pandemic has instilled a sense of urgency among all religious heads and denominations. This brings to a situation where religion is bound to follow what science has to offer. Historically, there has always been a conflict in that interaction.
Coronavirus and World’s Religions
In Saudi Arabia, the government took an exemplary decision of closing down the Great Mosque in Mecca for annual umrah visitors. Touching or kissing the holy Kabaah has been prohibited. The annual Haj pilgrimage which was scheduled in July has been suspended. Across countries, following strict orders for social distancing, mosques have cancelled Friday prayers. Several religious bodies in the US have come together on the eve of the holy month asking Muslims to offer namaz at home and to stop inviting guests for Ramadan’s Iftar.
In Rome, the Pope took the lead in maintaining social distance by insulating himself from the holy mass. Churches and synagogues in Israel, the U.S., and other countries remained closed or under restrictions. Easter Sunday’s mass gathering on St. Peter’s Square where the sacred ceremony of papal blessings is held was cancelled. Religious conferences were also cancelled. Buddhist New Year celebrations have been cancelled across South Asia. In India, festivals such as Navratri and Hanuman Jayanti were celebrated under strict guidelines. One of the largest Hindu festivals, Holi, was celebrated in March wearing masks. Temples, churches, mosques, synagogues, etc. took special responsibilities considering the imminent danger. They showed the requirement to adapt and change as per needs.
The classical conflict between scientific knowledge and religion seems to have somewhat reconciled during this unique period of pain and hardship. Yet, the conflict is not over. Christianity’s, ‘end of the world’ prediction never came true. Theologians around the 6th century concluded that the Earth was flat. It was found incorrect. Islam’s, belief in ‘end of the world’ (qayamat) still remains only a dominant thought or belief. Historically speaking, as scientific advancements are made, religions tend to reinterpret scriptures to own those findings, thereby seeking legitimacy.
In mid-February 2020, the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denied the seriousness of the disease calling it a conspiracy of the West against Iranians. In less than a month, Iran became one of the most affected countries. In fact, Iran did nothing to disperse the 70-odd Chinese clerical students staying in the worst-hit city of Qom even though they knew the outbreak was spreading fast across Asia.
In Pakistan, many hard-liner clerics defied government orders of shutting down mosques which led to a spark of debate as to who was in charge of Pakistani affairs. In Karachi, a news report of civilians chasing law-enforcement police personnel on the street highlights the deep-rooted control of religion in society. Since, Pakistani government has given in to the calls for opening up of mosques for Friday prayers.
In India, there have been cases reported in media that many participants of the Markaz’s congregations refused to voluntarily come forward for medical examinations. They were reportedly in hiding which created panic among citizens. Despite strict government directions to maintain social distancing and avoid congregations in religious places, there are still reports of such gatherings taking place.
In the US, the worst-hit country in the world, news of a tussle between Christian pastors (even a Senator) and local authorities were reported over the issue of restrictions on church services. Some conservatives have argued that failure to exempt religious services from general rules of lockdown amounts to an ‘anti-constitutional attack on religion’. The issue has been further fueled politically by President Trump who re-tweeted a controversial tweet on April 18, thereby bringing religion into the coronavirus communal divide. While explaining his displeasure to enforce restrictions on Easter Sundays in many states, he told the press that, “They go after Christian churches, but they do not tend to go after mosques” (the Atlantic, May 1, 2020).
Impact on Organized Religions
The Coronavirus pandemic may re-orient the way religious followers follow their faiths. The reactions triggered by the antiviral lockdowns and restrictions across the globe have similar impact as the arguments triggered by the arrival of the virus. It impacts in two ways:
- Shutting down of religious places has a major impact on the popular image of religion as a savior from chaos – particularly amongst youngsters. Within the walls of Abrahamic religions, for religious commentators, it was God’s punishment on ‘atheist China’. Later, when the disease infections crossed borders, they said God was punishing humanity! Some Muslim clerics have reported to have publicly announced that the pandemic is nothing but ‘God’s retribution’. The pandemic has also challenged religious appeals of those who consider themselves as guardians of the faith.
- Social and physical distancing measures would test the resilience of congregational nature inherent in any organized religion. Friday congregations among Muslims, Sunday church services, mass puja ceremony in temples, etc. have been suspended and gradually replaced by online conferences and e-learning. The privatization of religious rituals at home and personal spaces is happening on a large scale. This could have a lasting impact on more secular societies in the West.
The fight against the Pandemic requires a symbiotic approach
The virus does not discriminate among religions. But human responses to pandemic may involve discrimination among religions. At the political level, various feathers were ruffled when the President of the US called it a ‘Chinese Virus’. At the community level, there is a similar tension. This has not only created administrative hurdles while delivering essential services but has also posed the danger of communal stigmatization and hate crimes.
Overcoming the health crisis will require solidarity from religious leaders and bridging the gap between science and religion. Such a highly contagious pandemic also requires the services of faith leaders in making public aware. Faith leaders will act as intensifiers and conscience-keepers of believers. Their contributions would help during funeral services, efforts to spread community-awareness at the local level and to stop fake information on social media.
**The author is a former civil servant. M.Phil. in American Studies from JNU. He is a de-registered PhD Candidate at the United Studies Programme, SIS, JNU, New Delhi.**