How Religious Beliefs Have Responded to the Challenge of Covid-19

For several weeks now, many of us have wondered why certain religious groups, certain communities are reluctant to comply with the sanitary rules which a majority of the peoples of the world regard as indispensable to stop the spread of Covid-19. How can this be explained?

Closure by police of a synagogue in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem on March 30, 2020.
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

In the West, the Middle East, or in Asia, in churches, mosques, synagogues and other places, members of a given community come together, commune, and congratulate one another, thereby favouring the dissemination of the virus. Have they all forgotten that in 18th century Russia, the plague was spread because the faithful queued to kiss icons contaminated by the bacteria? Of course in those days people did not know how an epidemic was transmitted. But how can we explain such behaviour today when there is ample proof that the danger of propagation comes from contacts between people?

Resistance to globalisation

In South Korea, when the disease first broke out in early February, a large number of persons infected were members of a marginal Christian sect, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, and today many voices are calling for its dissolution.

In Israel for many weeks, ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods refused to conform to the restrictions imposed by the government. The density of their population is such that these urban concentrations are putting the whole country at risk. In Bnei Brak, the country’s largest ultra-orthodox city (in the North-West suburbs of Tel Aviv) 35 to 40% of the population has been tested positive. In Jerusalem, 74% of people tested positive came from the city’s ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods. At Qom, in Iran, the Shia sanctuaries were crowded with faithful. In Saint Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral, hundreds of believers were seen kissing the icons in an exposition of Saint John the Baptist relics from Jerusalem. In France, on 11 April, an Easter vigil was held in the Paris church of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet1 in defiance of the strict rules of confinement laid down by the government.

It has been supposed that globalisation would be able to do without religion. It has even been suggested that its ultimate consequence would be, if not to do away with it altogether, to confine to certain pockets a phenomenon considered archaic, refractory to the rule of logic or not profitable enough for a market economy. By bringing to everyone—albeit unevenly—the benefits of an economic system rig-zagging between the continents and irrigating the different societies, globalisation could minimise the importance of religiosity. In some instances, such was the case. The task was thought to be made all the easier as the system did not move goods and products alone: it also obliged people to move as well. These expatriates not only lost their familiar geography, they lost part of their history as well. Only their culture— that vast travelling bag which never leaves them, containing what they know, what they believe, their rituals, their habits, their values, etc.—enables them to bridge the gap between what they left behind and what they have discovered. By keeping their beliefs and their faiths, people have preserved their roots.

For those who have been spared this uprooting, the same analysis applies: globalisation has made them lose all their bearings and their faith is all they have left to cling to. In other words, the more globalisation asserts its rule, the more religiosity and its reassuring rituals dig in their heels to resist the pandemonium, the uprooting, the sense of being out of step with a new society or rejected by it. So it is not surprising that certain communities of believers refuse to adopt precautions which make them feel they must give up something of a higher order and collective rights which embody their beliefs: embraces, purification, sanctification, ablutions, ritual baths or the use of communion wafers.

Crime, punishment and divine protection

When nothing seems to explain the onset of an inconceivable tragedy—war, famine, natural or human cataclysm, pandemic—religious beliefs provide an inexhaustible source of interpretations which do not preclude political considerations and ideological opportunism.

For one Ralph Drollinger, a US minister of religion who chairs a Bible study group in President Trump’s entourage2, the present crisis is an act of divine judgement. The Covid-19 virus is an expression of “God’s anger,” not with America but with those Americans who worship “environmentalism” and have a penchant for “lesbianism and homosexuality.” Rick Wiles, a conservative preacher in Florida, has declared that the propagation of the virus in synagogues is “God’s punishment for those who oppose Jesus”. Although his website has been shut down, his messages are still in circulation.

When asked whether confinement in Israel will last until Passover, Yaakov Litzman the ultra-orthodox Israeli Minister of Health, could only answer: “We hope and pray that the Messiah will arrive before Passover, in time for our redemption. I’m sure the Messiah will come and take us out of this the way [God] took us out of Egypt. Soon we will be freed and the Messiah will come and redeem us for all the evils of the world.” By a cruel twist of fate, the Minister was later tested positive for Covid-19, obliging Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and other politicians and security officials who had been in contact with him to go into quarantine.

Well aware of the danger of the virus, the Islamic State Organisation (ISIS) explained to its members that it had been sent “by order and decree of God” and advised them “to place their faith in God and find refuge with Him”, while at the same time handing down practical recommendations to avoid contamination nonetheless.

At the beginning of March, the Greek orthodox Church rejected the notion that holy communion could favour virus transmission. In a public statement, the Holy Synod declared that “for the members of the congregation, to partake of the blessed Eucharist … could not possibly cause the spread of the disease [even] in the midst of a pandemic”.

Hidden agendas

Religious beliefs provide answers to the mysteries of life and at least some sense of order for people who share them. Yet an excess of rationalism can be equally misleading and we must ignore conspirationists, who are convinced that everything unexplained is the consequence of some secret design, plotted by some dark forces. Whenever a statement, an act or an event escapes our immediate understanding, conspirationists believe that some hidden forces are at work behind the scenes. Needless to say they claim to have flushed out the conspirators.

Governments may also fall into that trap. Referring to a conspirationist website, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, suggested on 12 March 2020 that the virus had been unleashed on China by the US Army. He offered nothing to back up this claim, let alone any proof. Symmetrically, many theories have been produced, especially in the United States, according to which the Chinese have allowed the virus to spread to bring down the world economy so that it should become the only international power left standing.

The relative helplessness of governments

In Israel, the army has been deployed around the ultra-orthodox town of Bnei Brak where the population, which refuses to take seriously this terrestrial scourge, has been widely contaminated by Covid-19. The zone is practically under siege, confinement is total and a military curfew is in force. These drastic measures show that in a period of national tragedy, the State is often powerless to obtain acceptance of extraordinary decisions except through the use of force. In the case of the Israeli health minister, Yaakov Litzman, his failure to observe the protective rules laid down by his own administration caused him ironically enough to be infected by the virus.

From the strict viewpoint of the faithful, the State is a creature of recent creation whose date of expiration is inscribed in its temporal nature. Obeying its injunctions is less important than obeying one’s faith.

People whose conscience tells them they belong to a specific lineage of belief will be tempted, at one time or another, to adopt this point of view. But others will resist.

Between obligation and consent

Out of realism or under State duress, community leaders have taken the lead, sometimes with drastic measures, in the presence of a pandemic which has quickly proven deadly. In Jerusalem, on 23 March, the waqf3 administration decided, for the very first time, to close the grand Al-Aqsa mosque, obliging the faithful to pray outside, and at a safe distance from one another. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has banned the Omrah— a pilgrimage which may take place at any time of the year—and has suspended this year’s preparations for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. For the first time ever, this will be a year without any pilgrimage to the holy places of Islam. Foreigners will not be allowed to travel to Mecca or Medina. In Iran, one of the countries most seriously affected by the virus, authorities have done away with the Friday prayer in all the provincial capitals. Ayatollah Khamenei has asked everyone to say their prayers at home during Ramadan.

In Singapore, Muslims going to the mosque must bring their own prayer mat and avoid shaking hands. The Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs has asked the faithful who suspect they may be contaminated by the virus to stay home. In Tajikistan, prayers must be said at home. Nowruz, the Persian New Year, will not be celebrated in public. The Mormon Church has cancelled all its public ceremonies around the world. In Israel, Passover was not publicly celebrated this year as it has been in the past.

What with confinement in the home, bans on downtown traffic, highway checkpoints, curfews, drones and helicopters to monitor people’s movements, the whole world is under lockdown. In Italy, devastated by the virus, all the Roman Easter ceremonies have been cancelled—Palm Sunday mass, Good Friday, Easter Vigil. Pope Francis bestowed his blessing “Urbi et orbi” overlooking an empty piazza San Pietro. Today the Vatican, like Mecca and the Kaaba, may only be toured virtually via the Internet.

What is urgent is to provide human communities with the means to protect themselves from the virus. In the longer term, there is no doubt that societies will need time to recover financially and economically from this calamity. But the pandemic will also probably leave scars on religious communities. Rituals will have been neglected, desecrations committed, measures taken which will be considered in violation of the dogma, traditions will have been flouted. Blame will be heaped upon religious authorities who condoned a government’s cautionary directives.

1TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: This church is one of two associated with the Society of Saint Pius X, a group of conservative Catholic holdouts, opposed to Pope John’s modernisation of liturgical ritual and notably the abandonment of the Mass in Latin.

2Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, belongs to this circle.

3TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: A waqf or mortmain property, is an inalienable charitable endowment under Islamic law. (Wikipedia)