A virus dilemma for the faithful

A virus dilemma for the faithful

Muslim worshippers pray in front of the closed doors of a mosque in Dubai on March 21, 2020 amid the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP / Giuseppe Cacase)
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The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting daily life across the world. Social contact in particular is discouraged, in a policy described as social distancing. All of which leaves the question of religious gatherings — places where people are often close to one another, often touching.

The challenge to religious leaders around the world is that religious gatherings, congregational prayer and worship, are not regarded as leisure, but rather as a duty of human beings toward their creator. Some forms of worship are even mandated in scripture.

Saudi Arabia’s rapid response has rightly won praise; suspending Umrah, deep cleaning the Grand Mosque in Makkah, and most recently closing all mosques apart from the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah. These decisive actions are perhaps made slightly easier by the Islamic jurisprudential tradition and the governmental authority that is granted to certain scholars, something that is replicated in many Muslim-majority countries. The Fatwa Council of the UAE released a fatwa on March 3 explaining the jurisprudential and scriptural authority for the government to prevent people from attending prayers to prevent infection. Other countries have done likewise.

Nevertheless, with Ramadan rapidly approaching, Muslims around the world will be seeking guidance about how to conduct the fast. There will need to be clear instructions on exemptions for those who need to maintain their strength, and restrictions on iftar gatherings.

In Christianity the challenge is different.  There  is no jurisprudence to draw on, and many denominations of churches do not even have a central authority with power to issue instructions. Much of Christian worship revolves around the Eucharist (the sharing together of bread and wine in memory of Christ’s crucifixion), which often involves a common cup; another common feature is the “sign of peace” (a representation of fraternity with fellow Christians), which often involves a handshake, hug or kiss. Both practices are obviously problematic during an epidemic of this sort.

The longer this crisis goes on, the more creative religious leaders are going to have to become in how to maintain the integrity of worship when worshippers can’t congregate. In the meantime, if it leads to an increase in regular personal prayer, acts of charity and community spirit, they will all be written down as one good outcome from a terrible situation.

Peter Welby

The hierarchical churches (such as the Church of England in the UK, or the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches) have reacted differently. In the UK, as the epidemic grows more severe, the Church of England announced that churches would be closed to regular public worship (apparently for the first time since 1258), although funerals and weddings may still be permitted in limited form. In Jerusalem, all the leaders of the recognised Christian denominations called on their followers across the political jurisdictions in which they serve to obey the civic authorities in response to the crisis. In practice, this has meant not attending church.

Elsewhere, though, there has been some difficulty. The Greek Prime Minister called on the Greek Orthodox church in the country to follow the science, in response to a media furore that followed a church statement that the Eucharist “certainly cannot be a cause of disease transmission.” In response, the Church has suspended daily services, and is discouraging its worshippers from attending on Sundays.

It has often been religious groups who have stepped into the breach in times of crisis in the past, when political leadership has fled. Christian responses to plagues in the second and third centuries in the Roman Empire — staying and caring for the sick, both Christian and pagan, at great risk to their own health —accelerated the spread of Christianity across the Roman world. The point has always been that for those who believe in the salvation that their faith offers, there should be no fear of death; but likewise those who share in that faith have a duty to care for the living.

That lesson from early Christianity has been cited by various Christian leaders and theologians in the past few weeks. But there is a challenge too. COVID-19 is highly contagious, and those infected do not experience symptoms for some time after contracting it — but they can spread it to others. So visiting the sick and the dying (whether of this disease or not) alongside health workers, as Pope Francis encouraged Catholic priests to do, may pose a risk not only to those doing it, but also to everyone else they visit subsequently. This poses a huge dilemma to priests in all churches, for whom tending to the sick and the dying is a key part of their ministry.

So how is it that religious groups care for the living? The statement of church leaders in Jerusalem called on believers to use the opportunity to “intensify personal prayer, fasting and alms-giving.” In the UK, Churches Together, a body that most of the church denominations belong to, called for a “national day of prayer and action” this Sunday, in which, in addition to prayer, Christians were called upon to collect groceries for those who can’t go out, make donations to a food bank, and make contact with those who are in isolation.

The Islamic responses have drawn on the jurisprudential principle that “avoiding harm takes precedence over acquiring benefit,” but many of these responses have also looked at what good can be done despite the restrictions. The British Board of Scholars and Imams suggests expanded private prayer and recitation of scripture, “tending to the unwell in appropriate ways,” and an increase in “charitable works.” The UAE’s fatwa called upon “all groups and individuals to extend help and support to one another in whatever capacity they are able to do so.”

The longer this crisis goes on, the more creative religious leaders are going to have to become in how to maintain the integrity of worship when worshippers can’t congregate. In the meantime, if it leads to an increase in regular personal prayer, acts of charity and community spirit, they will all be written down as one good outcome from a terrible situation.

Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby.

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