The future of religious gatherings in the COVID-19 era

The future of religious gatherings in the COVID-19 era

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It remains to be seen how religious institutions will cope as the pandemic drags on. (Photo: Maydan Al-Quds)

One of the more trying aspects of the global pandemic for people of faith has been the suspension of religious gatherings around the world. Given the potential for the virus to spread in places of worship, many congregations have moved online and, in some cases, been completely transformed.
Not everyone is happy, however. This week, members of New York’s Hasidic Jewish community protested against fresh restrictions announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Faced with spikes in infections and concerns about tens of thousands of worshipers congregating indoors across the city, the authorities intervened to restrict religious gatherings as they have in many places around the world.
Given that the coronavirus is likely to remain a serious health threat for some time, the immediate future for religious communities remains uncertain. All we can say for sure is that every major global faith group is facing challenges. And some, like New York’s Hasidic Jews, are pushing back against the restrictions that have been imposed.
The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, for example, has also filed a lawsuit against Cuomo over the closure of churches in neighborhoods experiencing surges of infections. Elsewhere in the US, some churches have successfully challenged the restrictions on large gatherings. Last Sunday, for example, the Capitol Hill Baptist Church held its first outdoor service in Washington, DC after successfully challenging the District of Columbia in court. The Anacostia Park location allowed for social distancing and participants were required to wear masks.
In England, meanwhile, religious services are still allowed inside places of worship as long as there is enough space to comply with the government’s social-distancing requirements, and face coverings are worn. Religious gatherings are one of the exemptions to the “Rule of Six” — others include workplaces and schools — that was introduced by the UK government on Sept. 14. It remains to be seen, however, whether such services will remain possible while the pandemic persists — and, indeed, whether the current experience of restrictions means fewer people will return to church services when they resume.
For many people, the government restrictions have changed the very essence of religious communities. To them the church is not only a place of worship but also a space for hosting events, an important source of social interaction and a safety net for the lonely and vulnerable. With a growing number of services moving online, and other church-based activities not happening at all, the effect the pandemic is having on so many people’s lives is unprecedented.
The Vatican has faced criticism for Pope Francis’s lack of enthusiasm for wearing a mask during religious services. Given that most faiths place a strong emphasis on dialogue and a sense of connection, restrictions imposed by authorities around the world have been challenged frequently by religious leaders.
During a recent prayer service on Rome’s Capitoline Hill that was led by the pope and brought together Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Buddhist leaders, Lutheran Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm told the congregation: “Our souls are confused. All the physical signs of connectedness — hands reaching out to each other; speaking closely, face to face, unmasked; embracing each other; giving each other hugs — all these physical signs, which so far have been expressions of love, have now become the enemy of love, have become a danger to one another.”
India has recorded 120,000 deaths related to COVID-19. As the nation prepares for the Hindu festival season of Diwali, senior scientists have warned the government that because it falls during winter when there is increased susceptibility to infection, the celebrations could lead to a huge surge of the virus in a country ill-prepared to deal with it. Given that there is already a surge in cases in India caused by people deliberately ignoring social distancing advice, many are concerned that prayer services attended by thousands of worshipers could be catastrophic.

The faithful of the world are largely united in the belief that the practice of faith need not trump public health.

Zaid M. Belbagi

After the recent announcement by Saudi authorities that religious pilgrimages would resume in stages, many other leaders in the Muslim world are similarly looking at how worship might resume and continue. The experience of world religions during the pandemic has been characterized by a need to recognize and maintain the importance of congregation and prayer, without exacerbating the public health crisis.
It remains to be seen how religious institutions will cope as the pandemic drags on. Given that the great religions began in much less crowded and populous times, the review of religious practices that has been required as a result of the pandemic might have been inevitable, given the exponential growth of the world’s population. Aside from the most extreme religious practices, however, it would seem that the faithful of the world are largely united in one belief: That the practice of faith need not trump public health.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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