AV Mohammed at Durban's historic Grey Street mosque, which has closed its doors due to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)
AV Mohammed at Durban's historic Grey Street mosque, which has closed its doors due to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)

Religious bodies at coalface of coronavirus outbreak

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Mar 22, 2020

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Religious bodies worldwide have been at the forefront of combating the transmission of the coronavirus, from South Korea to Singapore, Malaysia to Iran, Hong Kong to Washington. Most have adopted the approach that protecting human life outweighs all other considerations but, unfortunately, there are those who have ignored every warning with dire consequences.

In South Korea, the spread of the virus started with the Shincheonji Church, which is considered a fringe cult within the Christian community. The church’s leader, Lee Man-hee, 88, believes he is the “promised pastor” mentioned in the Bible who will take 144 000 people to heaven with him.

Once the virus broke out among his congregants they infected each other as they prayed in close proximity while their leader banned health masks. Congregants then travelled around the country infecting others. What made matters worse was that the church initially kept its members’ names secret, making it harder to track the outbreak.

South Korea has one of the highest infection rates in the world and 63% of its more than 4 000 confirmed cases are sect members. Man-hee has apologised to the nation, but is now being investigated on possible charges of murder through gross negligence, amid growing calls for the church to be disbanded.

Evangelical pastors in the US who are also intent on flouting restrictions imposed by state governments on the size of church gatherings should take a lesson from Man-hee’s predicament.

They too could end up being charged with murder if they knowingly encourage person-to-person contact in large gatherings and the virus spreads out of control among their congregants, risking the health of those in the broader society.

One such church leader is Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who runs Revival Ministries International and the Grace Church in Florida. A South African by birth who moved to the US in 1987, Howard-Browne has vowed not to stop his church services and encourages worshippers to shake hands, saying “all those who fear the virus are pansies”. He is defying orders to close his church and his oft quoted retort is: “I’ve got news for you, this church will never close - only when the rapture is taking place.”

Despite all the medical calls to avoid human contact and ensure social distancing in order to avoid contagion and preserve human life, Howard-Browne said he would continue to lay hands on the sick, saying” “If you die to be with Jesus, so what’s the problem?” Such wilful negligence is likely to see court battles in the future as his congregants become infected.

No stranger to controversy, Howard-Browne ruffled many feathers when he made the outrageous claim that the notion of climate change was an attempt by certain forces at global governance. His contention is that the World Health Organisation wants to take control of nations and then bring in vaccines that will kill people to reduce the world’s population. He has also alleged that Hollywood practises child sacrifice and cannibalism.

But Howard-Browne appears to be among the fringe elements within the evangelical community, as others have taken a more rational position.

Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church, who is an evangelical ally of US president Donald Trump, has moved his services online, saying: “Every pastor needs to use wisdom, as government’s motivation is the well-being of individuals.”

Most churches have moved online and are spreading their messages via live streaming, which is a growing trend among the faithful. For churches with online experience, they no longer depend on ushers to pass around the collection plate.

The Vatican announced last weekend that Holy Week celebrations would be closed to the public and, for the first time in centuries, Rome’s churches are closed. Ten days ago the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints told its 15 million members that all gatherings were suspended, and the 30 000 Mormon congregations have also said they would not meet.

Churches across South Africa have temporarily closed their doors, including Methodist churches, the Hillsong Church, Seventh Day Adventists, the Rhema Bible Church and the Christian Revival Church. The Zion Christian Church’s Easter gathering at Moria, Limpopo, has also been cancelled

The Rabbinical Council of America, which issues guidelines for orthodox Jews, has stipulated that public gatherings in synagogues must be severely limited. The council has called for the postponement of weddings and said: “Protecting human life overrides almost every other Jewish value.”

This seems to be the general view held among the Jewish community in South Africa.

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies has said the community is taking the pandemic extremely seriously. Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein announced on Wednesday the closure of shuls across the country in a bid to curb the rapid spread of Covid-19. Goldstein said the unanimous decision was taken after medical consultations and across the rabbinic structures. The decision was driven by the Torah value of protecting human life. Religious lessons will continue, but online and synagogues which usually offer three services daily will be closed. Large gatherings over the Sabbath will also be put on hold.

The Islamic Society of North America and Muslim medical experts have called for the immediate suspension of congregational prayers, and the Fiqh Council of America has said: “One person’s desire to do obligatory prayers at mosque or fulfil other religious duties comes secondary to ensuring the common health of the larger community.”

Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s most prestigious scholarly centre, decided this week to halt Friday prayers, Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is closed, Umrah in Mecca and Medina has been suspended and in Turkey all prayers have been cancelled. The Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) of South Africa has cancelled Friday prayers.

The South African government has made it clear that no one is exempt from the ban which stipulates no gatherings of more than 100 people. While there has been no call by the MJC to close mosques, it has said it respects those who decide to do so and emphasised that measures should be put in place to limit the number of people attending.

The Jamia mosque in Nairobi, the biggest in East Africa, has also closed, along with schools, restaurants and shops in Kenya.

But not all Islamic gatherings have been as responsible, or taken the spread of the coronavirus seriously.

In Malaysia, of the 673 confirmed infections, two-thirds have been linked to the four-day Islamic meeting outside Kuala Lumpur, where 16 000 locals plus 1 500 foreigners attended. Participants prayed shoulder to shoulder, held hands and shared food with disastrous results. The virus quickly spread to South-east Asia.

In Brunei, 50 of 56 cases of infection have been linked to the mosque gathering, in Singapore, five are linked, in Cambodia 13, and in Thailand two.

But as Covid-19 wreaks havoc around the globe, religious leaders are more than ever painfully aware of its dangers and taking concrete measures to protect the faithful.

Top medical experts worldwide are unsure when this crisis will end, and warn that even after initial containment, there could be second or third waves of infections. The hope is that by then a vaccine will have been found and people will develop immunity.

But perhaps all that is left is for us to pray and isolate ourselves in our homes - which is the fervent plea of Italian doctors this week who are now warning the world of what is at stake.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.

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