Coronavirus disrupts organized religion, raising issues of religious freedom and responsibility

The fast-moving nature of the coronavirus pandemic defies easy forecasts about how religious institutions and even patterns of religious beliefs and practices may change from this crisis. But the disruptive nature of the virus on congregational life as well as the more long- term implications for religious freedom stand out as recurring themes. Probably never before has health concerns impacted major religious traditions around the world in such a rapid and simultaneous manner. Public Catholic Masses are no longer celebrated at St. Peter Basilica in Rome, pilgrimage to Mecca is currently not permitted, megachurches have cancelled services, the rare visitors to Jerusalem’s Western Wall are requested not to touch it, and major Hindu temples such Jagannath Temple in Puri have shut down. French President Emmanuel Macron has informed the leaders of the main religious bodies in France that it would not be possible for them to have any kind of gathering for Easter this year, Pessah, and the beginning of Ramadan (France TV Info, March 23).

Religious freedom has emerged as a concern for religious groups finding themselves in the middle of government management and containment of the virus. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a statement focusing especially on China and South Korea. The statement focuses on the way the Chinese government’s unannounced quarantines discriminated against and exploited Uighur Muslims who were already relocated to concentration camps. In South Korea, the controversial 300,000-member Shincheonji church was seen as a center of contagion in the heavily hit city of Daegu. Shinchunji church, which is often criticized by the media and mainstream churches for its secrecy, received national attention because the “31st” coronavirus patient, a member of Shinchunji church, was seen as responsible for the rapid spread of the virus by attending a church service. Furthermore, the church’s list of its membership that Korean health authorities demanded to track the spread of the virus was seen as not transparent and forthcoming. While media, government and religious leaders viewed Shinchunji church as culpable in the spread of the coronavirus in Korea, the USCIRF statement says the church has faced unwarranted harassment from the government and that the church’s role in the outbreak was exaggerated.

At the initial stages, it sometimes seemed that the response to coronavirus would be marked by a divide between conservative and liberal believers. This was illustrated by the reaction to the decisions of some Catholic bishops to instruct clergy to give communion only in the hands (and not on the tongue), in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Very soon, however, the main issue became plainly that any kind of public gathering would no longer be permitted in most Western countries as well as in some other ones. Religious groups in all those countries have complied, whatever their doctrinal inclinations. Since some religious gatherings in different places of the world have been channels for the propagation of the virus (the same could be said of secular gatherings), no religious group would like to be accused of bearing such responsibility, even if there have been a few exceptions of US pastors vowing not to close their churches (e.g. Life Tabernacle Church, Baton Rouge). In some other parts of the world, however, the response has been more mixed. In countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia, the governments have been unable to forbid some large Muslim gatherings. Similarly, in some Indian States such as Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, local authorities have permitted large gatherings of Hindu believers, despite the contrary advice of the central government (The Print, March 18).

In some areas of Europe, even gatherings of more than two or five people are now banned. In a number of Catholic or Orthodox parishes, this means that the Mass or Liturgy is still being celebrated, but behind closed doors, with only a priest or the priest with two or three assistants. While the measures preventing any gathering definitely came as a shock, they have also encouraged creative responses. There have been churches offering drive-thru prayers, drive-in services (Fox News, March 19)—or even drive-thru confessions, reviving the earlier version of drive-thru churches. The significance of the Internet is obvious, and it seems hard to imagine how churches might have reacted if a pandemic with such an impact had struck in pre-web times. In Europe, a number of evangelical churches have been among the first ones to switch to online worship—the fact that a 2,000-person gathering at a megachurch in Mulhouse (Eastern France) had become a major channel for the spread of the virus certainly gave a boost to this impetus. Church services of various denominations are now regularly broadcasting online. Talks and messages attempting to make sense of the situation (especially during the current Lenten period for a number of Churches) are being shared through Facebook and other social networks. There are also synagogues starting to hold online bar mitzvahs (The Jewish Chronicle, March 20).

All of this has not replaced physical contact with the believers however, and at a time of epidemics, some chaplains in hospitals and nursing homes do not always find it easy to access people they would like to minister to, due to protective measures enforced. In Italy, a number of priests have already died from the virus, some of them after ministering to people in need. While religious bodies reacted as well as they could to the current crisis and the way it has changed their entire situation in a matter of weeks or even days, and while they are legitimately eager to emphasize that any measure that may help saving human lives should be accepted and supported, religious institutions seem not to have taken a leading role in responding to the crisis. Some isolated conservative religious figures in various denominations have actually been critical of the tendency to follow “only the logic of the state, the secular one,” according to an article in LifeSiteNews (March 18). True, there are more and more calls to pray on specific days and times for an end to the current crisis, but clearly believers first trust governments, hospitals and health authorities to find a solution. – K.T. Chun, a New Jersey-based writer and researcher, contributed to this article.