Religion and religiosity in the time of Covid-19 ... Absent Questions

11 May 2020

As usual, discussions related to organizing religious affairs in Egypt occupy a significant part of public debate at times of various crises and developments. As soon as the Egyptian government began to impose partial closures to confront the Covid-19 pandemic, controversy erupted over decisions to close places of worship and prevent religious gatherings at the time of approaching important religious occasions for both Muslims and Christians. This becomes a fertile ground for settling political scores and faith one-upmanship between multiple parties in a scene that is not alien to the public discourse in Egypt.

The fact of the matter is that such discussions are not a pure Egyptian anomaly. Countries all over the world are not immune to such discussions and one-upmanship, but there are other questions and priorities on the agenda of those interested in religious affairs at the global level that can be used to develop our debate about the roles of religious societies in times of disasters and pandemics, which is the aim of this article, by reviewing aspects of these discussions through specific points:

  • The social role of religious groups in times of disaster and crisis:

There are those who advocate that disrupting the practice of rituals and preventing religious gatherings should not necessarily lead to decline in religious presence in the public domain, and that religious institutions and associations are expected to play positive roles in favor of their societies in times of pandemics and disasters to maintain peace, order, and social solidarity in such crises, and that religious institutions must develop their roles and prepare to help their communities effectively in the event of a pandemic or other disaster, while emphasizing that facing the pandemic will be more difficult without religious groups and places of worship.

Are our religious institutions prepared for such catastrophic scenarios? The prospect of answering “yes” does not seem to have that much probability. The Ministry of Religious Endowments announced that it is preparing for the post-Covid-19 crisis and re-opening of mosques by preparing and maintaining mosques at a cost of 100 million EGP. Is spending on re-furnishing and maintaining mosques deemed a wise consideration of priorities at a time of a global pandemic which foreshadows an economic meltdown that threatens people's lives and their livelihood? And does the media discourse of the Ministry of Religious Endowments reach a degree of rationality that enables it to pool efforts and reduce the impact of the crisis on citizens, or is it engaging in one-upmanship and absurd battles which the time of the pandemic does not seem to be the most suitable time to wage, such as the controversy over the broadcasting of the Qur’an al-Fajr and Maghrib from the loudspeakers in the mosques, for example?

Perhaps developing the discussion on the social role of the Ministry of Religious Endowments opens the door to redefining this ministry and its original function as a civil ministry whose mission is to manage charitable endowments aimed at providing financial support for social, educational, and religious services, before it turns into a religious institution that seeks to monopolize the fatwa and religious discourse or share their monopoly with other religious institutions? It may also open the door to the question of the limits of the Ministry's authority over the religious opinions of its imams and employees in light of the repeated instances of the firing of imams from their jobs due to their religious opinions being contrary to the ministry's discourse?

  • Considering religious fears and building trust between the government and religious groups:

A report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom entitled "The Global Response to the Coronavirus: Impact on Religious Practice and Religious Freedom" pointed to the importance of maintaining mutual trust between different religious groups and the state, and the government's consideration of religious groups' concerns about preventing religious rites, especially during important religious occasions, taking into consideration that such religious groups can provide humanitarian and social assistance in times of disaster and have prior experiences in such circumstances.

This case draws attention to how the authorities should deal with breaches of decisions to close places of worship and the collective practice of rituals inside them during religious events: Should they arrest and prosecute those involved in these violations and examine their security records so as to increase the overcrowding in prisons? Or should it limit itself to breaking up congregations and ensuring that the places of worship are closed only without freedom-restricting measures or fines?

  • Monitoring the rights of religious minorities and monitoring and holding officials accountable:

Among the important questions raised at the international level in this regard also: the extent of how religious minorities in different countries of the world are impacted by this crisis, especially after additional manifestations of discrimination and social stigmatization against religious minority communities such as Shiites in Pakistan and Muslims in India and Cambodia, as these minorities are a source of the pandemic due to the occurrence of the first cases of infection with the Covid-19 among these minorities.

 There is also international concern about some governments exploiting this crisis to endorse further violations against religious minorities, especially in China, which since 2017 has held more than a million Uighurs and other Muslims in what appears to be forced labor camps or rehabilitation in which the spread of the virus may cause humanitarian disasters, as well as reports of the Chinese government forcing these detainees to work in factories to make up for the shortage in medical services caused by the Covid-19 crisis. Also criticized are the local authorities in South Korea for filing a lawsuit against a Christian church for allegedly undermining public health conservation efforts despite the Ministry of Health announcing the church's cooperation with government efforts.

 The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the governments of the world to release prisoners imprisoned because of their religious opinions and beliefs in order to avoid overcrowding in prisons and the possibility of them being infected inside,  and perhaps calling for such action lies primarily, in it trying to transcend the popular question, about the limits of state authority in restricting religious freedoms during the time of the pandemic. So will the horizon of the public discussion be narrowed down to the extent it cannot imagine a role for the state vis-a-vis religious communities at those times, other than just restricting their freedoms and cannot extend its role to according more rights in any possible way?

Religious minorities and human rights activists interested in religious freedoms in different countries can also benefit from this general call to action to develop special demands from their governments to release prisoners held because of their religious beliefs and opinions as a more specific requirement among the common public demands for the release of prisoners of conscience and political detainees to reduce prisons overcrowding.

Some of those concerned with religious freedom also demand religious groups and human rights activists to remain vigilant, hold officials accountable, and observe exceptional measures to reduce religious freedoms to avoid the spread of Covid-19, to ensure that these measures are ended pending the end of the crisis.

In summary, there are many questions and debates that can be the subject of public debate about the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the religious arena and about the multiple roles that religious communities can play in the midst of this crisis, and the serious access to these more vital discussions calls for accelerating the opening of serious dialogue between various religious groups about their needs and how they perceive their roles and position during this crisis.