By Khaula Rafeeq Aalam
April 22, 2020
During these strange times, many have turned to religion to ask for an end to the spread of the coronavirus. However, in most cases, it is reminiscent of the saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Religious gatherings are attributing to rising numbers in many places in the world. The first religious group among which the virus spread was in South Korea. It all started with a 61-year-old lady, a regular at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Testimony in Daegu.
The lady in question had gotten into a minor traffic accident and had developed a headache the next day. She went to the hospital and despite also feeling other symptoms of the flu did not get tested, arguing that she did not travel so she is safe. In the time between her feeling sick and eventually being positively tested, she attended at least three church gatherings, exposing hundreds of people to the virus. She has since then been dubbed the super-spreader. While an official on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response in the country also tested positive for the virus, later admitting to being a follower of the same church. The situation became so severe that the church leader issued a public apology to the people.
Meanwhile, the first coronavirus death in India’s Punjab was of Baldev Singh, a respected member of the Sikh community who also held a job at the village gurdwara. He had returned to India after visiting Germany for two weeks via Italy on March 8th. He was cleared by the health checks at both the international and Indian airports and instead of going into self-quarantine, he had resumed life as normal. He started going to the gurdwara, attending to the local panchayat and even ended up serving devotees at a festival a day after Holi. Singh was asymptomatic for the most part and showed symptoms late, succumbing to the virus just ten days later. He was diagnosed posthumously. At least 934 of his direct contacts have been tracked down since then out of which at least 38 have been confirmed to have coronavirus so far, including his family.
The Tablighi Jamaat also did not sit idle while history was being written. A 16,000 strong congregation was held in Malaysia in mid-February, from where the participants went back to multiple countries. This resulted in an uptick in cases in Malaysia, while those infected with the coronavirus also travelled to Brunei and Thailand. Although there is no direct data to link the two yet, many in India are also blaming a Tablighi Jamaat congregation held in Delhi for soaring cases. The jamaat had also gathered at least 150,000 people outside Lahore in Pakistan for an annual gathering till they were sent home on March 12th. Many of the participants later tested positive, including two Palestinian men, who returned to Gaza and became the first two cases there.
Our neighbour Iran also failed to close the holy sites there in time leading to an outbreak in the city of Quom. The situation was further exacerbated by Nauroz celebrations, during which people openly flouted the lockdown and rules placed by the Iranian government. Pakistan also paid the price for the Iran not sufficiently locking down religious activities as seen by the situation at the Pakistan-Iran border. In addition, inside Pakistan, mosques are still being frequented while the federal government has announced that they will remain functioning during approaching Ramazan. The less than satisfactory management on the part of various governments, as they try to balance religious sensitivities and the blatant disregard of the severity of the virus by various followers of religion have added to the number of cases in any country where activities were not curbed.
An antithesis to this situation was presented by Saudi Arabia, where Mecca and Medina were closed to visitors, a step so unprecedented that even the 1918 flu pandemic did not shut the twin cities down. The land of the two holy mosques sealed its borders to foreigners, disinfected anything and everything in hope that it would defeat the virus in time for Hajj. Although, it can safely be presumed from the statement of Muhammad Saleh bin Tahir, the Saudi Hajj and Umrah Minister, telling Muslims to ‘withhold’ the signing of any Hajj agreement that the postponement, which has occurred only 40 times since 629 AD, will see its 41st moment in the sun in 2020. To put it in context, the last time Hajj was postponed was in 1798.
Pope Francis of the Catholic Church in Rome, who initially opposed the church-ban’, changed his mind in face of the devastating reality that is the coronavirus and allowed the church to be closed. He decided to stream his Sunday Angelus Sermon live from the safety of his home. Many priests, especially in Italy, which was hit the hardest, are now urging people to use the internet and popular social media sites as tools to love God through.
Italy also has the toughest restrictions on religious services and the government has imposed bans on not only church services but also baptisms and funerals. Priest in the presence of, at most, three family members say the final prayers for the departed soul. But what alternative ways could be taken? Attending a funeral of one patient will lead to quarantining 70 attendees, which is exactly what panned out in Foggia, Italy.
All sorts of religious events banned in Slovakia, ban on holy water in Lithuania, closure of synagogues in Belgium, closed doors of the holy Kaaba and the suspension of collective prayers in all 90,000 mosques in Turkey indicate the very surreal times we are surviving in. The safe distance that we are rightly obliged to keep is threatened by prayer congregation and religious communion. It does not matter who gives the directive, an imam or priest or even the government, but it is the need of the almost apocalyptic time that religion is practiced privately instead of collectively, the world over.
Khaula Rafeeq Aalam is a resident of Lahore, a doctor by profession
Original Headline: Piety becomes perilous: congregation amidst Covid-19
Source: The Express Tribune, Pakistan