Religion And Covid-19

We are living in unprecedented times when the story concerning the novel coronavirus is constantly evolving. For reverends, priests, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders around the world, new physical-distancing laws are making it impossible to hold their normal services. Rarely in the history of the world have governments forced religious leaders to cancel services. Even after 9/11, when many people in the United States feared Muslims, the American government never stepped in to cancel Muslims’ freedom to worship at mosques. During the 1940s, when anti-Semitism was at its height in North America, governments didn’t cancel synagogue services. North American governments have never before interfered with religious ceremonies. Freedom of religion is a critical reason people have immigrated from around the world to become part of North America’s melting pot society.

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During this time of crisis, some of America’s most outspoken ministers have been churning out divinely inspired viral moments, touting faith over facts. They’ve also touched off fierce debates over individual freedoms. In Louisiana and Florida, two vocal preachers have defiantly held mass gatherings during the pandemic. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, of the River at Tampa Bay Church, escaped a showdown with his local sheriff’s office in Florida last week after defying county orders and packing his mega-church full of followers. Howard-Browne was arrested for challenging the county lockdown, but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis later gave all state churches a pass as “essential services” under the state’s safe-at-home order. In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell seems to be gearing up for crowded services at the Life Tabernacle Church after thumbing his nose at the state’s ban on large gatherings. “We’re defying the rules, because the commandment of God is to spread the Gospel,” Spell says. “The church is the last force resisting the Antichrist. Let us assemble regardless of what anyone says.”

A broad approval among more conservative churches to cancel services due to COVID-19 has happened in Canada; however, some in the anti-abortion community have expressed outrage at mass being suspended. A petition signed by a number of leading Catholics has been circulated that states: “Something is terribly wrong with a culture that allows abortion clinics and liquor stores to remain open, but shuts down places of worship.”

The majority of Canada’s religious leaders, however, are accepting the new “normal,” and they are making the best of this extraordinary situation. Instead of opposing the government shutdowns, they are embracing them with the use of technologies such as Zoom, FaceTime and others that allow their congregations to assemble online.

Rabbi Cory Weiss of Temple Har Zion in Thornhill, Ont., says: “In the Jewish religion, a minimum of 10 adults must come together to pray properly. There is a greater source of physical energy the more people there are. The fact that services are now being live-streamed rather than in-person is like the Twilight Zone.” As for a Zoom congregation, Rabbi Weiss feels that while “it’s not the same — it feels awkward — and you can feel the distance, our congregants feel it’s like having a piece of synagogue in their home.”

Married couple Reverend Tom and Dr. Heather Vais are co-ministers at the Thornhill Presbyterian Church, located in the city of Vaughan, Ont., and the town of Markham, Ont. They are in agreement with Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision regarding religious gatherings. “We think it is necessary and socially responsible for all churches and places of worship not to be meeting publicly at this time. This may be challenging for some; however, everyone has to make a sacrifice to protect the greater good. The government represents the people and has been democratically elected to make decisions for the safety and well-being of all citizens. We support the government both provincially and federally.” They are hopeful that prayer will end the pandemic. They feel that “for Christians, prayer is a vital part of our faith expression. We pray regularly for one another, for our families, for our community, for our leaders, for those who are ill and for the countless individuals who serve in many capacities on the front lines to help us all get through these unprecedented times. Prayer can be offered from any place, at any time, in any way,” they say. “While church buildings are important, bricks and mortar do not make a church. The church is the people, and we can reach out from where we are to support one another. Our faith in God sustains us and gives us hope for an end to this disease and healing for our world.”

Under normal circumstances, Muslims attend mosques to pray five times a day. “This is as much a part of life as brushing your teeth,” says Safwan Choudhry, director of communications for Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, which is the largest organized Muslim group in Canada and headquartered at the in Baitul Islam Mosque in Vaughan, Ont. “Many say they want to come even more so, but it’s reminding people it is imperative for the safety of the larger community, society at large and the country as a whole that we have to play our part in taking adequate measures,” says Choudhry. “Currently, the mosque is offering live-streaming services and video-conferencing. Ramadan is the holiest month of the year. It is also the month when the mosque is occupied the most,” Choudhry says. “We pray and hope for the containment of the virus within a month, but if we are still in an emergency situation, we will make arrangements to do Ramadan from home. We realize we all need to play our part in minimizing the impact.”

Pastor Eugene Chianain of Immaculate Conception Parish in Woodbridge, Ont., realizes closing the parish doors is the right thing to do. “During this state of emergency, our parish is temporarily closing its doors to assist in limiting the spread of the COVID-19 virus. While it is a painful moment in the life of our parish, we pray that it will help in combating the pandemic that has affected so many in our community and around the world.”

Reverend Fr. Mark Stacey of Christ Church in Woodbridge shares his thoughts on the closing of his church during the epidemic: “We make this decision not out of a sense of fear, but in confidence that it is the right, safe and caring decision to make for the church and for the world at this time. While we cannot gather together to worship, please pray for the COVID-19 situation to end, and [pray] for those affected by it.”

The idea that religious freedoms are being taken away is inaccurate. Governments aren’t shutting down religion — they are shutting down any religious service where the spread of COVID-19 is almost guaranteed. The argument for leaving grocery stores open is simple and obvious: without access to food, even more people could die. No one is confiscating religious jewelry, or ordering Muslims to remove their hijabs. The majority of clergy across the globe understand that God hears your prayers, whether you’re at home, in a fox hole during the Vietnam War or surviving the Holocaust at Auschwitz.

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Myles Shane

Myles Shane