Religious Institutions under the Pressure of COVID-19: Traditional Policies and Delayed Crisis Management

10 September 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has imposed exceptional circumstances and tough challenges on Egyptian religious institutions, which have been tested when it comes to policies of social distancing in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. These measures have included the closure of places of worship and others that bear consequences on the pastoral and social roles of these institutions. There have also been problems of reopening the places of worship due to strict health measures and necessary changes to some established religious practices.

Since the beginning of the crisis, saving lives has relied on rapid and effective government intervention and the temporary restrictions on certain rights, including freedoms of religion, belief, and assembly. These legitimate restrictions are supported based on public health-related grounds. In this context, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, “The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion… is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment/or not to religion or belief.”

This article allows states to restrict religious freedom when necessary to protect public safety, public order, public health, morals, or the rights and fundamental freedoms of others. However, several conditions were set so that states would not use this restriction to violate freedom of religion. The most important condition stipulates that these restrictions should be imposed only if necessary and proportionate to the purpose for which they are imposed. Moreover, restrictions may not be imposed for discriminatory purposes, nor should public health emergencies be used to target or stigmatize certain religious groups. Unlike some other rights, religious freedom cannot be suspended in times of public emergency, which means that governments must balance this fundamental right and their efforts to combat the impact of the coronavirus.

On March 21, the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments and Egyptian Churches announced decisions to shut down places of worship, activities, and services. The Coptic Orthodox Church expressed its deep sense of gratitude for the efforts made by the state to control the deadly virus, in light of the government measures taken to prevent assemblies and unsafe behavior. Muhammad Mukhtar Gomaa, Minister of Religious Endowments, decided to temporarily halt congregational and Friday prayers in all mosques nationwide, stating that the decision was taken to protect the safety of worshipers. It is based on the legitimate rule that taking care of your body is an act of worship.

Other countries and religious institutions preceded Egypt in applying such decisions, with efforts spearheaded by the Vatican, which closed its churches as early as the beginning of March. Saudi Arabia also closed mosques and suspended congregational prayer to curb the spread of the virus, and many countries around the world took the same step. In Egypt, the decision was announced by the official Islamic and Christian religious institutions simultaneously, without discrimination or exceptions, and in coordination with government agencies.

How religious institutions have responded to the coronavirus pandemic

Actions taken by Egyptian religious institutions at the beginning of the crisis were confused. Although the Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars, the highest Islamic religious authority, issued a statement that gave legitimacy to suspending prayers and closing mosques during the pandemic, the Minister of Religious Endowments simultaneously denied closing the mosques. However, a week later he issued the decision of closure. Meanwhile, the halls of some churches were crowded with hundreds of people while a number of bishops intially totally ignored the procedures of social distancing. Anba Youannis, the Bishop of Assiut, said during his weekly meeting in the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, “If a few people in Assiut pray with all their hearts, [COVID-19] will not harm any of us.” He repeated the phrase and asked the crowd to repeat after him.

With the increasing number of infections in Egypt, major religious institutions began to support health policies and government measures for confronting the virus outbreak. Community members were asked to adhere to social distancing policies and personal hygiene practices as key to tackling the virus. Decisions made at the international level paved the way for national institutions to close places of worship at the national level, especially when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia closed mosques and holy places and cancelled the minor pilgrimage.

In public statements and in unofficial private group communications, Salafi movement leaders’ discourse rejected the closure of places of worship. They stated, “eliminating this disease will be through the houses of Allah, not by closing them.” However, leaders of this movement did not raise complaints, especially after the Ministry of Religious Endowments punished imams and mosque officials who did not abide by its decisions. The police also broke up gatherings of some citizens who violated the decisions and prayed in front of homes.

In a related context, a group of Christians objected to the decision of Egyptian churches to cancel their celebrations of Holy Week and Easter and the continued suspension of all related religious and spiritual activities and services. Consequently, groups led by bishops and their supporters criticized Pope Tawadros, during the first time in many decades for churches to be completely closed during such a religiously-significant time of year.

The discourse of religious institutions has emphasized adherence to the instructions and procedures issued. They have tried to spread awareness among religious followers about the role the faithful can play in protecting themselves and others as well through adhering to medical instructions and health procedures to reduce infection and eliminate the spread of the virus.

On the other hand, a number of Islamic and Christian leaders have presented a supernatural explanation for the spread of the virus and its effects on human life, arguing that the coronavirus is an expression of God’s wrath and a divine punishment for the spread of evils. Anba Agathon, who is the Bishop of Maghagha and belongs to the more conservative wing of the Church, said, “[COVID-19] is an unprecedented pandemic that reveals God’s wrath and is a punishment upon humanity for its evils.” Father Dawoud Lamy, one of the most famous preachers in Egypt, berated those who refused to link the virus with the spread of the sins of heresy, accusing them of heresy and promoting false prophets.

A number of Muslim jurists and preachers who hold official positions consider coronavirus as a divine punishment against China for the continuous violations against the Muslim Uighur minority. The Egyptian preacher Ahmed Isa El Masarawi, the former Chairman of the Quran Review Committee, tweeted that God isolated China from the world because it isolated more than five million Uighur Muslims. The Global Fatwa Index (GFI), which is affiliated with Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, shows that the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafists have linked the emergence of the epidemic to the ban on wearing the veil inside Egyptian institutions and universities. The virus is considered a divine punishment in response to such practices. The GFI demonstrates that 55 percent of the Brotherhood and Salafi fatwas related to coronavirus revolve around the idea of ​​divine punishment.

Challenges to adapting to the new status quo

Various religious groups have resorted to technology, taking advantage of the internet and social media to resume educational and spiritual activities. Some preachers broadcasted Tarawih prayers during Ramadan from their homes on social media, while some Christian clerics are using social media and software applications such as Zoom to hold meetings, communicate with church members, and broadcast to the masses. However, these practices have so far remained individual initiatives that are dependent on the ability of clergy to use technology along with devotees’ level of tech savvy and internet access.

The effect of the closure of places of worship on the financial conditions and the social roles of religious institutions has varied. The effect was limited in the case of mosques, whose financial resources are from the state’s budget and managed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Imams and workers in mosques and religious institutions are government employees, so their financial resources were unaffected by the closure. Meanwhile, churches do not receive any financial support from the state, with their financing depending on worshiper donations, affiliated endowments, and related economic activities, which also depend heavily on the consumption and purchase of their products. Therefore, churches’ ability to pay the salaries of clergy over a long period during closure is limited. In fact, some clergy have not received their full salaries in some areas due to the repercussions of this crisis.

This situation casts a shadow over the roles of social and religious institutions. Hospitals and care homes that are affiliated with places of worship and provide subsidies for the needy and the poor have been affected by the outbreak of the virus, both due to increasing demand for these services by vulnerable populations and as a result of the lack of financial resources to continue supporting these institutions. Although suffering is widespread during this pandemic, marginalized and vulnerable groups have suffered more.

The Prime Minister issued a decree on 24 June, 2020 that places of worship might receive worshipers to perform religious rituals, except for Friday prayers for Muslims and the main prayer determined by religious authorities for non-Muslims. They have to observe some controls including commitment to all precautionary and health measures decided by competent authorities, commitment to a gradually-implemented plan for performing prayers set by the Ministry of Religious Endowments and religious authorities, and closure of toilets and assembly halls attached to the places of worship. In August, the ministry announced that it would reopen mosques for Friday prayers beginning with August 28 while adhering to some health-related measures.

After this decision, the Ministry of Endowments announced a set of measures to reopen places of worship, the most important of which was a limit of 25 percent of the mosque’s capacity and the application of strict procedures regarding sterilization and wearing of masks. Meanwhile the Standing Committee of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church decided to let each diocese choose whether to reopen or continue suspending prayers, according to the number of infected cases in the diocese’s region. As a result, most dioceses decided to continue suspending prayers and strict procedures were imposed by those who opened their doors. On August 3, churches reopened their doors for services (except for on Fridays) to congregants who sign up in advance. Prayers are expected to take place on Friday, starting from September 11.

These conditions raise questions about the ability of religious institutions to regulate the entry of worshipers. Some churches have begun to prepare lists of congregants who wish to attend services, trying to give them chances to attend once a month or more. This system represents a significant change, since many Copts go to church several times a week due to the social services and entertainment they provide at a cheap cost and without discrimination. Since the start of the pandemic, these activities, which include religious trips, competitions, and sports, have all been suspended.

Controversy over Receiving Communion

A number of Coptic researchers and commentators have raised the issue of changing the manner of receiving communion based on the concern about preventing the transmission of infection. They urged the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church to discuss the issue and adopt another way for receiving Communion following the example of most churches around the world. These appeals were rejected by clerics and other supporters, who considered it a weakness of faith and skepticism about the sanctity of Communion. “We believe that the Communion mystery is the secret to life. It heals our sins and diseases of body, soul and spirit. We should approach Communion with fear, not with scientific examination,” said Bishop Raphael, Bishop-general of Cairo’s Downtown Churches and the secretary of the former Holy Synod, to the Coptic Church’s CTV channel.

Pope Tawadros II expressed his preference for a compromise in an editorial of Al-Karazah magazine entitled “Motherhood of the Church.” “We will practice an exceptional way of receiving communion instead of the usual method, which we will return to once conditions return to normal. This is a freeze or postponement of the usual method and not a cancellation or deletion. This is the voice of wisdom. We should not confuse anyone, and we do not live alone in society,” wrote the Pope.

A wave of criticism directed toward the Pope and other advocates for changing the way of communion has ensued. Bishop Agathon of Maghagha expressed anger at the Pope’s statements, saying “The faith of children is better than the faith of the clergy in this era.” He expressed objection to those discussing church matters scientifically, emphasizing that we should not demand changing the shared spoon because Christ’s Body cannot transmit a virus. Following the reopening of churches, communion was given in the traditional manner.

Ultimately, religious institutions in Egypt have played an incomplete role in supporting government policies that curb the spread of the coronavirus and raising awareness of preventive measures. They have tried to communicate a message of reassurance and hope to their audiences. However, they have not decisively tackled the major intellectual issues that have been prompted by the pandemic. In addition, their performance has been marked by stagnation and an inability to make rapid and timely decisions.

The has been published via The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in September 9, 2020.