The world’s religions and coronavirus

As COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, it is forcing religions to adapt and take action to prevent infection. But experts warn against using the crisis to fuel conspiracy theories. Christoph Strack reports

By Christoph Strack

It is early morning in Rome, and the Pope conducts himself like a man sealed off from the outside world behind the walls of the Vatican, celebrating what is officially the only mass taking place in the whole of Italy. Bishops and church leaders from a variety of nations and faiths are cancelling conferences. In the U.S., scores of synagogues remain closed. The Jewish Purim festival just a few days ago, which should have been a vibrant spectacle akin to carnival, was celebrated half-heartedly if at all. The similarly colourful Hindu Holi festival in India also faces similar restrictions.

Germany’s Central Council of Muslims has declared that it is "admissible" if a local "mosque suspends Friday or other prayers for reasons of health prevention or because of a suspected case". Mouhanad Khorchide, Munster-based scholar of Islam and religious educationalist, highlights the closure of the Great Mosque in Mecca. "That was the most forthright measure conceivable and showed the extent of responsibility and how serious the situation is," said Khorchide in conversation with Deutsche Welle. It is now abundantly clear: in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, rituals and customs are having to adapt and change.

Community and sensuousness

Religion – at church services or on pilgrimages – tends to be based on community and sensuousness. For example, kissing a multitude of sacred stones or Torah scrolls, prayer books or crosses, with everyone drinking from the same chalice. All that has ceased for the moment. St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome has been closed completely, important churches such as St. Stephen’s in Vienna are drastically restricting access, in Israel the government is reducing visitor numbers for all of the country’s synagogues. And worshippers have stopped kissing devotional objects.

The Great Mosque in Mecca (photo: Getty Images/AP)
Seltener Anblick: Die Große Moschee in Mekka fast menschenleer. Zum Schutz vor der Epidemie setzte Saudi-Arabien die Umrah, die sogenannte kleine Pilgerfahrt, nach Mekka und Medina aus.

Crisis researcher Frank Roselieb says that the churches are doing the right thing. They have a responsibility towards their followers, he says. The relevant risk analyses are based on clear, verifiable criteria from the Robert Koch Institute. Roselieb expects the traditional papal blessing on Easter Sunday on St. Peter’s Square attended by several thousand people to be cancelled. "The Easter blessing has the same dimension as a soccer match and should therefore be cancelled," he told Deutsche Welle, adding that this was more important than the cancellation of confirmation classes taking place in small groups.

Religious ignorance 

Notably, religions have themselves accelerated the spread of the coronavirus. In South Korea, it was a secretive Christian sect that ignored official advice and caused a spike in the number of infections. In Iran, the city of Qom, one of the most important centres of Shia scholarship in the world, became the source of thousands of infections. The ayatollahs of the clerical patriarchy refused to go into quarantine. Now, the entire country is fighting the virus.

Munster-based scholar of Islam and religious educationalist Mouhanad Khorchide (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Verbreitung von Fake News und Endzeitvisionen: Auch der Münsteraner Islamwissenschaftler und Religionspädagoge Mouhanad Khorchide kennt "Verschwörungstheorien" über Corona im islamisch geprägten Kulturkreis. Er spricht von "bestimmten Ländern im Süden", in denen muslimische Geistliche die Pandemie als "Strafe Gottes" verklärten.

Most imams in Europe seem to be a few steps ahead. Khorchide speaks of a "highly positive role", as responsible clerics took steps early on to prevent the shaking of hands and increase awareness of the health of the elderly and infirm.

Warnings against apocalypticism

But the scholar of Islam is also aware of "conspiracy theories" surrounding the coronavirus. He mentions "particular nations in the south" where Muslim clerics are describing the pandemic as "divine retribution". This is an "abuse of the imam’s authority," he says.

A different kind of abuse – ignorance about the virus, for example – is also evident in the right wing Catholic milieu in the U.S. and Italy. These communities are making a general fuss about guidelines and prohibitions. And in response to church closures across Italy until early April, they rhapsodise over the idea of an underground church similar to the church of resistance in the dark days of communism.

Crisis researcher Roselieb recognises voices such as these and warns against apocalypticism and alarmism. In his view therefore, while religious communities should take responsibility where practical questions are concerned, they should wholly refrain from participating in the general debate surrounding the virus itself. This would only serve to "boost the apocalypticists" or "somehow lend them credence" he says. Along the lines of "the situation is so dramatic that even the Pope is commenting on the subject," says Roselieb.

He sees a fundamental tendency "to assign apocalyptical traits to the issue – not by the churches or religious communities themselves, but by conspiracy theorists." And this is exactly what happened at the turn of the last century, even before the era of social media and fake news.

Christoph Strack

© Deutsche Welle 2020

Translated from the German by Nina Coon