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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Worship in a Time of Pandemic Religion and Public Health

7 July 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a new weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, Sahar Ahmed, early career researcher at the School of Law, discusses her research into religion and human rights, worship in a time of pandemic, and why faith leaders are essential stakeholders across the world in preventing the spread of the virus.

Sahar Ahmed, PhD candidate, School of Law, TCD.

In the final pre-COVID days, just before Ireland went into lockdown on the 13th of March, I attended a Sunday service at St Ann’s Church on Dawson Street in Dublin. As a Muslim, I’m not usually to be found at any church on any Sunday morning, but as a lawyer researching human rights and religion I felt privileged for having stumbled there that day because I was not prepared for what I heard. The vicar’s sermon that Sunday was an exemplary piece of public service. He deliberated on the exacerbation of illness in the community, on the increased cases of infection and the mounting numbers of dead from the coronavirus. He prayed for his community, but he also performed a vital role in community outreach for public health. The sermon included practical and medically substantiated advice on how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from COVID-19; Revd. Gillespie stressed the importance of hygiene in and for faith, and the readings chosen for that day were beautiful, recalling the Christian principle of protecting our brothers and sisters.

I left the service feeling uplifted, but also heartened by something I have long believed: beyond their acknowledged and crucial roles in community-building, faith leaders also play a huge part in influencing the direct action their followers take. I am certain that the congregation that day at St Ann’s went home and washed their hands multiple times, taking heart in knowing they are doing the Lord’s work.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case in many parts of the world, and my research into religion and human rights has become depressingly relevant of late. My home country, Pakistan, had a strong start battling the virus. Lockdowns were put in place before most countries in the developed world, all flights in and out of the country were grounded, quarantines were put in place for people being repatriated, and there was widespread testing. Prime Minister Imran Khan was praised internationally for this swift action. But the Pakistani government completely failed to place restrictions on religious gatherings inside mosques.

Pakistan has long struggled to exert control over its fourth organ of governance- religion. In late March, the President of Pakistan was holding meetings along with provincial governors to convince senior clerics to close their mosques. That the state could enforce this for schools, universities, businesses, and industry, but had to plead with mosques, is telling.

Unsurprisingly, the clerics rejected this plea. All congregational prayers went ahead for weeks, lockdown notwithstanding, as thousands worshipped in tight and cramped mosques with no social distancing measures, until Pakistan’s COVID death toll became staggering. By the end of May, Prime Minister Khan had capitulated, lifting the lockdown before the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Fitr. New coronavirus cases skyrocketed as a result, with daily infections rising from about 1,700 per day before the relaxation to 5,385 new cases on June 9th, a single-day record.

Pakistan currently has 235,000 cases of the coronavirus, with 4,839 deaths recorded so far, according to government data. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended a re-imposition of a strict, intermittent lockdown, targeting localities with the highest spread of the disease.

This is not to say that the mosques’ refusal to close their doors directly caused this outrageous spike in numbers for the country - other lockdown measures were poorly enforced. But it sets a dangerous precedent when we see people of faith’s right to practice their religion freely start impinging on public health and safety.

Photo by Pedro Lima on Unsplash

A similar situation arose in Brazil where a major evangelical church won a legal battle in court over the right to remain open as public gatherings were being cancelled. While most state governors and many city mayors tried to ban religious assemblies, they were overruled by President Jair Bolsonaro, who exempted churches from coronavirus lockdowns as an “essential service”. With similar scenes playing out across Africa - in Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania, to name a few - one can’t but help wonder, should the right to freedom of religion be invoked when being faced with a global pandemic that doesn’t care whether its victims are believers or not? And should a church champion its legal rights over its moral duties to its community?

And as the world continues to grapple with this ‘new normal’, as major religious epicentres such as Mecca and the Vatican start cautiously reopening, governments must take stock of how they will reconcile religious institutions and citizens’ constitutional and human right to freedom of religion, with the expediencies of a public health emergency. There is a high human cost at stake, and governments will have to rise to the challenge.

Maybe they can borrow the Vicar of St Ann’s for some wise and sage counsel.

Sahar Ahmed is a PhD student researching the right to freedom of religion within the international human rights legal system and Islamic jurisprudence at the School of Law in Trinity College Dublin. Her research is supported by a Postgraduate Research Studentship. Sahar graduated from the University of London’s International Programme in 2010 with an LL.B (Hons) degree. She then went on to undertake the Bar Professional Training Course at The City Law School, London, being called to the Bar of England and Wales in 2011. She is a barrister member of the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn. Sahar is currently an early career researcher at the Trinity Long Room Hub.





Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Language and the Pandemic with Dr Kristina Varade (1 July 2020)

Essential Workers and the Pandemic with Caitriona Lally (24 June 2020)

Joyce and the Pandemic with Professor Sam Slote (17 June 2020)

The Pandemic and Education with Dr Ann Devitt (9 June 2020)

The Pandemic and the Planet with Dr Ruth Brennan (2 June 2020)

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