March 2020

The impact of social distancing and how various religions are coping with it, with divergent views on the role of congregational prayers around the world.

The balancing act of keeping houses of worship open Vs. maintaining social distancing norms.

By Siddiq Bazarwala

With a rising number of Covid-19 cluster infections emerging from religious gatherings around the world, many moderate followers of their respective faiths are questioning why a minority group of their co-religionists are adamant about congregational prayers.

This considering how a handful of large religious gatherings have been at the center of key clusters.

In South Korea, at least 52 percent of all confirmed cases have been traced to congregants from the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where the number of cases in the country stood at over 10,000 as of early April. In Malaysia approximately 50 percent of the country’s confirmed 4100 cases have been linked to a Muslim missionary event attended by about 16,000 people at a mosque in late February. There are now fresh concerns the same pattern might emerge out of New Dehli India and Lahore Pakistan from its respective Tablighi Jamat gatherings. Meantime, at least 15,000 people are quarantined in Punjab, India after a Sikh Guru died from Covid-19 in March after returning from Italy and Germany.

Governments around the world are being roundly criticised for their chaotic response even as a large number of them have introduced various forms of a lockdown to slow the spread of the virus. In some cases, this include requiring places of worship to close their doors.

In New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio found himself in hot water in late March among various religious groups after threatening to “permanently” close down religious gatherings. In Israel, security forces have used stun grenades and batons to disperse crowds within the ultra-Orthodox community. In South Korea, government prosecutors are considering to press charges, including murder against the founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. In India, the headquarters of a large Muslim missionary group in New Dehli has been sealed off while a Hindu activist from the ruling government Bharatiya Janata Party was arrested after a volunteer fell ill from drinking cow urine at a party to combat the Covid-19.

It appears therefore, government directives on observing new social distancing regulations have taken a long time to filter through some religious groups, especially those independent, standalone houses of worship that fall outside the purview of mainstream religious authorities.

Prayer, shared meals and scripture study is at the core of most faith groups around the world. From chanting sutras to group prayers, the act of worshiping in congregation is believed to provide spiritual relief from the stress of falling victim to Covid-19. Some pray for themselves while others pray for their communities but ultimately, conviction of a higher power combined with religious fervour is what binds them all altogether, regardless of religion.

Some wonder why God would send down Covid-19 while others counterpoint man not God, is responsible for much worse including deforestation, global warming, pollution, online paedophilia, pornography, child sex rings, women trafficking, infanticide, slave labour, poor access to clean water, nuclear weapons, guns and bombs, that cost many more lives daily.

Thus, like coffee and cigarette breaks, people of faith often find solace praying in groups as a means to introspect their footprint to manmade disasters and seek salvation from this trial through a medical breakthrough let alone a miracle during Easter, Passover or Ramadan.

But blaming Jews for the action of a segment of the ultra-Orthodox population that previously insisted on keeping the doors of the Synagogue open is as misguided as blaming Hindus for the action of a minority groups of Hindu pilgrims participating in religious ceremonies or Muslim for the contrarian actions of a minority of Muslims who insist on congregational prayers, despite the near-unanimous opposite opinion of the majority.

For those not attending religious gatherings meanwhile, they have either turned to daily prayers, online sermons and meditation on WhatsApp, livestreaming on Facebook and group conference calls on Zoom to stay connected with their place of worship or spiritual leader.

While every major faith group around the world is having to grapple with these social distancing regulations, the media spotlight however is falling on those minority groups who violate, rather than those in the majority who comply with these regulations.

Citing religious texts, those in the minority zealously claim the house of worship should remain open at all times while other co-religionists cite injunctions quoting ‘saving one life is equal to saving the whole of mankind’. Of course, both sides accuse each other of cherry-picking quotes and the argument is ultimately lost in the haze of religiosity, sidestepping the universal belief to love thy neighbour.

In the words of Timothy John Winter, also known as Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, a scholar, researcher, writer and academic:

“Beware of yourself when the energy that moves you in life is actually the ego’s energy, but has found a religious form of expression. That is the most dangerous thing of all.