Faith responses to COVID-19: Listening to representatives of religious communities
The churches in Africa – a constructive and timely COVID-19 response
Dr. Fidon Mwombeki, General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches
COVID-19 has certainly become the most widespread pandemic and disaster the world has seen in the memorable time of our generation. It has affected everywhere with different intensity. As I write this article, Africa is one of the least affected with fewer confirmed infections and fewer deaths because of less advanced statistics and tests. Nevertheless, we are in full awareness that save from the grace of God, if it actually spreads like in other continents, we have much more limited capacity to mitigate it.
We Africans recognize the presence of the almighty God in our lives, from cradle to grave. This pandemic is no exception. Churches are struggling to understand this, and reflect on it theologically and spiritually. Many countries have held national days of prayer for God to rescue Africa from this self-realizing threat. It is not because of desperation and helplessness, but from their customary devotion and spirituality, in times of joy or sadness, success or failure. The roles the churches have been playing are multi-faceted.
First and foremost, churches are opinion leaders in their communities. Their voices to accept the reality and severity of the threat, has been very important, particularly in supporting the members to follow the protocols set by their governments to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Second, churches are leading by example. Many have stopped gathering, even where the governments did not ban them. They have changed the way they worship and administer religious rituals like baptism, marriages, Eucharist, either by suspending some altogether or celebrating them without physical contact.
Third, churches are taking practical actions to support government systems and through direct diaconal services. The churches have the widest presence in both rural and urban areas. Churches have become teaching points for people on the importance and how to wash hands and the use of sanitizers. At the same time, many churches have launched localized diaconal services, providing food and other necessities to the very vulnerable families, particularly because African governments are not structured to even know the identity of the most vulnerable or even how to serve them. Congregations have collected and distributed food and cleaning materials to the vulnerable in their communities.
Fourth, it is well known that in Africa, churches contribute a large portion of health services, especially in remote and rural areas. In this way churches are using their medical facilities as frontline responders. We thank God that so far, the virus is mainly in large cities in Africa. But the trend is clear that it spreads even to the countryside. Churches are seriously preparing their facilities to be capable and available for helping those who will need treatment and care. Many of these facilities are not adequately equipped or supplied. Churches need additional capacity to be ready for this major task.
Lastly, let me say a bit about the role of All African Conference of Churches, AACC, which I have the privilege of leading. In addition to supporting the churches in Africa, we are specifically focusing on two aspects. The first one is to work with churches at theological level, identifying and addressing misleading theologies in connection with COVID-19. There are many self-proclaiming prophets and preachers who pretend to speak in the name of God, as if God writes e-mails to them. Many of these are prophets of doom, claiming for example, that COVID-19 has been sent by God as a punishment for world sins (from sexuality to climate), and that the only way is to repent and pray day and night because even medicine will not be found. We propagate theologies of life, of the love of God even in times of pandemic. We discourage apocalyptic interpretations of the pandemic, that it is a sign of the impending end of the world, while propagating theologies of hope in and for the future.
The second one is defending the dignity of African people against those who are very unhappy that the origin and epicentre of this pandemic is not Africa. We have therefore issued two major statements, one condemning the French researchers who implied the tests for vaccines should be done in Africa, as if Africans are guinea pigs and Africa a testing lab. The second was “condemning the racist, xenophobic discrimination of Africans in China” after very disturbing images which went worldwide showing despicable abuse of Africans residing in China. It is very unfortunate that even when Africa is neither the origin nor epicentre of a terrible pandemic, some evil elements in the world would like to tie it to Africa as they do with all other bad things. God have mercy.
Dr Fidon Mwombeki is serving as Secretary General of the All African Conference of Churches and received his theological PhD in Minnesota, USA. He has fought for gender and health rights throughout his life and leads the biggest umbrella organisation of Christian churches in Africa. AACC has member churches in 42 countries on the continent.
The Fatwas of the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani
Another good practice of religious responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are the fatwas of the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani, one of the highest authorities in Twelver Shiism (the main body of Shia Muslims). His words in responding to the COVID-19 crisis are important guidelines for the Shia community. In one fatwa, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani answers questions about the Corona virus and tells believers to adhere to the rules of physical distancing and self-quarantine, among others, and calls them to help infected persons and families that have been harmed because of the current situation. He encourages the believers to take precautions that are proportionate to the size of the pandemic without panic and distress and to work hard to educate others on matters relating to the virus.
In another fatwa, titled “Rulings Regarding the Efforts of Medical Professionals Caring for Coronavirus Patients (COVID 19)”, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, states that qualified medical personnel should help the infected persons. However, he clearly says, that it is the responsibility of the authorities to provide them with the necessary protection so that medical staff does not contract the virus while helping others. He continues to applaud the work of health care professionals and expresses the highest appreciation for their humanitarian work.
Sistani achieved the status of marjaʿ al-taqlīd (Arabic: “model of emulation”), the highest level of excellence in Twelver Shi’ism. He lives in Najaf in Iraq and is also the leader of the Iraqi Shia community.
COVID-19 response by World Vision
By Andrea Kaufmann, Senior Advisor for External Engagement, previously Director Faith Partnerships for Development
For millennia, faith actors have played a unique and essential role in responding to crises and pandemics. Members of faith communities have been on the frontlines of health care, risking their own lives as they responded to a range of physical, emotional and spiritual needs, and supported families and communities in their grief. World Vision International (WVI) is drawing on experiences from history, including the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, to partner with faith actors in responding to COVID-19. Several principles and approaches guide WVI’s partnership with faith communities.
First, WVI partners with faith leaders as respected and trusted community members to share accurate prevention and care messages to protect vulnerable children and their communities. In many communities, a breakdown in trust between people and their political leaders leads to an unwillingness to listen to vital health information. During COVID-19, WVI is cooperating with a network of 400,000 faith leaders and faith community members trained in Channels of Hope—a methodology designed to motivate and build capacity of faith leaders and faith communities to engage with key child well-being issues through science-based information and insight from religious texts. WVI and faith leaders are partnering to share accurate health messages and offer encouragement and hope. Already 4,708 religious leaders are promoting preventive measures and create hope. In the Democratic Republic of Congo alone, 2,304 faith leaders have already received information about COVID-19.
Second, WVI and faith leaders are collaborating to provide spiritual support and psychological first aid to children and their caregivers as a source of healing and resilience. Faith leaders and mental health and psychosocial support experts have collaborated to create a resource to train and equip faith leaders to provide virtual psychological first aid to children and families in their communities.
Third, faith leaders are promoting social cohesion, combatting xenophobia and reducing fear and stigma. In the face of COVID-19, that means promoting interreligious connectedness in shared responses. Faith leaders can also address underlying beliefs or stigma that may be driving broken relationships. For example, in Bangladesh, World Vision engaged 1,009 faith leaders from different religions to raise awareness, prevent COVID-19 and offer hope to the community. WV Uganda supported the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda to create awareness on how to prevent of the spread of COVID-19 through a joint message by the Archbishop of Catholic Church, Archbishop of Anglican Church and Mufti of the Uganda Supreme Council of Muslims.
Also, faith leaders can promote prayer. Prayer in various forms has been shown to have positive impact on the mental and physical health of participants. As communities pray for themselves, their children and each other, it also contributes to social cohesion, care and respect for each other.
Finally, WVI is working with faith-based networks and partnerships such as the Faith Action for Children on the Move to advocate for governments, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs and health workers to engage faith communities as unique and essential partners to ensure the most vulnerable children are protected from COVID-19.
Religions for Peace Launched the Multi-Religious Humanitarian Fund in Response to COVID-19
Religions for Peace (RfP) launched the Multi-religious Humanitarian Fund to support multi-religious collaborative efforts around COVID-19 and to stimulate creative interventions that promote resilience within and among diverse communities. RfP International will provide a small seed grant to those Interreligious Councils (IRC) and multi-religious networks which propose programs aimed at enhancing awareness about precautionary measures, supporting vulnerable households, combatting discrimination in speech as well as in actions, and serving the needs of the most vulnerable individuals and communities. In this response to COVID-19, RfP draws from five decades of experience, trust, and engagement to fully equip and mobilize its regional and national interreligious networks. “Religions for Peace is determined to support the multi-religious humanitarian efforts in these crisis times because we know that multi-religious collaboration in times of crisis guarantees social cohesion at all times”, Prof. Dr. Azza Karam, Secretary General of RfP, points out. The seed grants, sponsored by the GHR Foundation and Fetzer Institute, just to mention two donors, encourage interreligious platforms and project partners to raise additional resources to scale up their efforts and ensure the sustainability of funded projects. RfP welcomes contributions to the Multi-religious Humanitarian Fund by individuals, corporations and governments who seek to support grassroots and creative multi-religious initiatives that are directly addressing the challenges of COVID-19. Eligible applicants – RfP-linked Interreligious Councils with proven track record who will work with interfaith youth and women of faith networks and other faith actors – can apply online until 10 May 2020.
Bahá’í communities worldwide are finding creative ways to respond COVID-19
At a time when many parts of the world are grappling with COVID-19, Bahá’ís worldwide are finding ways to be of service to their communities. Years of experience with community-building activities have equipped them to respond with creativity and resourcefulness to the current circumstances. In Italy, where preventive measures have confined most people to their homes, communities continue activities that bring hope. Believers come together online to support, to inspire, and to pray for one another. To people around them, Bahá’ís offer a voice of encouragement through regular calls – which often leads to profound conversations and strengthened bonds of friendship. Nilakshi Rajkhowa, of the Bahá’í Office of External Affairs in India, notes a similar trend in her country: “We feel that this is the time when we can reach out to everyone for a profound conversation on spiritual and social transformation, because people have become more conscious of a central idea at the heart of Bahá’u’lláh’s message: we are all one, we are interdependent, and we are all called on to support one another.”
Besides social, spiritual and mental uplifting, Bahá’ís around the world are providing practical support to their communities. They are remotely helping children with homework assignments, distributing food to children left without daily school meals, sharing and producing urgently needed materials such as disinfectants, soap and face masks, and assisting families that face language barriers to access government services. To ensure food security, Bahá’ís are publishing advice on what crops to plant and are expanding personal and community gardens.
Bahá’í communities in Nepal, India and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) took active steps to raise public awareness and provide critical information about principles of personal and collective hygiene. Young people in Mbuji-Mayi, Eastern Kasai province, DRC, even wrote a song in the Tshiluba language answering questions from youth about the disease. In Tunisia, Bahá’ís and other faith groups released a statement calling for harmony between science and religion.
All these activities, even the smallest, such as the encouraging letters and paintings children in Luxembourg sent to healthcare professionals, demonstrate the message that the Universal House of Justice gave in their annual statement to the Bahá’ís of the World: “However difficult matters are at present, and however close to the limits of their endurance some sections of societies are brought, humanity will ultimately pass through this ordeal, and it will emerge on the other side with greater insight and with a deeper appreciation of its inherent oneness and interdependence.”
Healthy and Respectful Thinking and Acting: Responses from Religious Traditions
By Heba Salah, KAICIID Fellow, 2019
It is undeniable that religious beliefs inevitably influence individual behavior. In all faith communities, individuals turn to religion and seek advice from religious leaders to deal with and counter unbearable life events. Throughout its history, humanity has experienced numerous challenges, the latest and highly globalized of which is the COVID-19 outbreak. With this unprecedented pandemic brining to focus the globalization paradigm, some people from different faith communities worldwide wanted to fish in troubled water by promoting a distorted religious discourse in an attempt to convince their target audience that it is just a sort of divine “punishment”. They claim that God Almighty intends to punish “non-believers” and wrong doers unlike His believing servants! Consequently, they objected to the safety procedures taken to protect individuals with respect to suspending prayers in houses of worship!
Such kind of hypothesis is not new; however, they do exist and influence the community due to the different channels of communication including social media. Therefore, we need to consider other perspectives when discussing the wisdom behind the state of sorrow, fear and challenges humanity is currently witnessing over the pandemic outbreak. Beside the virus threatening our lives, we are actually facing a methodology of false thinking which is the root of so many evils threatening the peace of this world. It is the illness of “fanaticism” and “extremist ideology” that devoured all the refined concepts and religious teachings.
While countering the spread of COVID-19, we need to reflect on countering the lethal virus of racism. To this effect it is inevitable to engage in interfaith and inter-cultural dialogue which has become an essential part of religious institutions’ work to encounter fanatic discourse and promote the true sound teachings that save the world from “extremist ideologies” pandemics. The real challenge in this respect remains “how could we achieve real respect for the other who has different faith?” The fact that all faith communities and religious traditions agreed upon is that there are other aspects of disasters, which we should focus on as believers when considering the wisdom behind the current pandemic. The most important of which is how much do we appreciate our lives and all the blessings that God grant us without asking Him? It is a good opportunity to rethink about one’s own methodology or attitude towards this universe and all people. Are we thankful for our health, our families, and the provision that God has given us? Do we realize that every moment of life is a gift, and an opportunity to draw closer to God? This is the healthy thinking that every individual should adopt at times of distress and afflictions.
It is important to bring to focus the role that authentic religious institutions play in creating a world that supports pluralism and peaceful coexistence, which is is not an easy task in such challenging times, but it is possible. To put it in a simple language, sharing the same faith is not a condition for accepting the other. Rather, it suffices to share a nice meal and discuss social issues of concern. That is the beginning of putting people of faith on the right path of “healthy and respectful thinking and acting”. This is the methodology that KAICIID is successfully adopting in their attempt and endeavors to make this world a better place for everyone. The secret to their success is that fellows from different programs share moments of real “humanity” interactions through the entire experience of training. Fellows end up having an interfaith family in every part of the world working hard to implement what they have learnt along such unique experience.
Religions teach us to have a comprehensive balanced look at the entire situation—the positive, the negative and then coming to a conclusion. In other words, healthy thinking and acting means looking at life and the world in a balanced way, not through rose-colored glasses. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) said, “There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black, nor is the black superior over the white, except by piety." This piety falls under the concepts of love, peace and mercy that everyone, with no exception, must maintain in dealing with and treating the other. Living with this understanding, we are humble in our power and use the gifts we are given from God to make the world a better place, not to destroy it.