Apr 9, 2020 - World

God and COVID-19

Alone at the Western Wall. Photo: Guy Prives/Getty Images

Few aspects of life bring as many people together as religion.

Why it matters: In most crises, that is a blessing. In a pandemic, it can be dangerous.

As the coronavirus spread beyond China, some of the earliest outbreaks were traced to religious services or pilgrimages.

  • South Korea's outbreak intensified rapidly after the virus was spread at a secretive church in Daegu.
  • Israel's virus hotspot is Bnei Brak, where some ultra-Orthodox people defied the nationwide lockdown to attend services and weddings.
  • The initial epicenter of Iran’s outbreak was the holy city Qom. Pilgrims reportedly contacted the virus there and spread it in their own countries before shrines were belatedly shut down.
  • A gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat Islamic missionary movement brought followers from 30 countries to Malaysia in late February, and is believed to have led to thousands of infections.
  • More recently, news that the virus had spread at another Tablighi Jamaat gathering in New Delhi has fanned sectarian tensions in India, with some prominent supporters of the Hindu nationalist government blaming Muslims for India's outbreak, per Foreign Policy.

But as much of the world has moved inside, places of worship have emptied as well.

  • Catholic services were suspended last month in Italy, and in other countries since. This weekend, Pope Francis will celebrate Easter Mass in a near-empty St. Peter’s Basilica.
  • Saudi Arabia closed the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina in early March and is considering cancelling the Hajj, which was expected to draw some 3 million pilgrims in late July.
  • The call to prayer still sounds in Kuwait, but people are urged to pray in their homes.
  • Meanwhile, many religious organizations have played vital roles in providing for the sick and needy.

Religious institutions in many countries garner far more trust than political leaders, but this is not simply a matter of church vs. state. In some cases, it’s politicians who are urging the faithful to gather.

  • President John Magufuli has called on Tanzanians to pack churches and mosques, arguing that prayer can keep the virus at bay.
  • Some Evangelical churches in Brazil have defied local and state bans on mass gatherings, with the support of President Jair Bolsonaro. He has dismissed the threat from the virus and declared church services "essential."
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made a similar designation after a pastor was arrested for refusing to halt services.

What to watch: Billions around the world will celebrate Passover, Easter and Ramadan this month. Many, but not all, will do so at home.

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