Coronavirus and religion – update 6 April 2020

By Tim Wyatt 

These are the latest religion news stories:

UK

  • A reported 23 million people tuned in to see the Queen, the head of the Church of England,  give a rare national address, thanking all those in essential roles on the front line of delivering care. She spoke of the attributes of self-discipline, quiet good-humoured resolve and fellow-feeling which characterise the country.  ‘Across the Commonwealth and around the world, we have seen heart-warming stories of people coming together to help others, be it through delivering food parcels and medicines, checking on neighbours, or converting businesses to help the relief effort.  And though self-isolating may at times be hard, many people of all faiths, and of none, are discovering that it presents an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect, in prayer or meditation.’
  • The Queen’s address was broadcast on Palm Sunday, as churches began Holy Week, the seven days leading up to Easter marking the most important time in the Christian calendar.  Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem the week before his crucifixion 2,000 years ago.
  • The Church of England’s Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, led the third weekly virtual and national service.  Normally, cathedrals and churches would be packed around the world throughout this week as services, processions, prayer vigils and other ceremonies are held. Many churches are organising online live streamed versions, including a complex video-based Easter vigil arranged by Anglican clergy which will run from Saturday evening through to Easter Sunday morning.
  • Pope Francis held a Palm Sunday mass behind closed doors at St Peter’s Basilica, and urged Catholics to recognise the “real heroes” of the pandemic: those “giving themselves in order to serve others”. In Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant denominations came together on Sunday to ask members to kneel in prayer at the same time in their homes.
  • In the absence of loved ones or faith representatives, hospital chaplains are finding themselves relied upon even more to provide comfort for both patients and doctors alike inside hospitals battling Covid-19. Some have spoken of the difficulty in ministering to people through personal protective equipment and how to handle the surge in end-of-life requests. Although the government rules state funerals can still take place during the lockdown provided they are very small, some councils have gone further and banned all ceremonies. Bradford, Leeds and Kirklees councils have all barred any family members for attending crematoria of those who have died from the coronavirus.
  • Other faith groups have also been co-ordinating the faithful despite the rules around social distancing. On Saturday British Baha’is were urged to join a day of prayer for those who are sick and those who have died.
  • Anti-hate groups have recorded prominent far-right activists using the pandemic to stoke anti-Muslim hatred. Tell Mama, which monitors Islamophobia, said it had already debunked dozens of claims which wrongly accused British Muslims of spreading the virus or continuing to worship in mosques after the shutdown.

GLOBAL:

  • The impact of Covid-19 continues to be felt in various ways among religious communities. In Israel, there is rising concern about how some ultra-Orthodox groups are flouting bans on public gatherings and even still holding synagogue services. An entire town, Bnei Brak, has been cordoned off by the Israeli authorities because the Haredi Jews who live there were seeing rocketing rates of coronavirus infection, many times higher than the general population. Many ultra-Orthodox do not have the internet, TV, radio or smartphones, hampering efforts to spread public health advice.
  • Donald Trump has now abandoned his plan to lift the US lockdown in time for “packed churches” on Easter Sunday and has announced he will himself be tuning into a service live streamed by the pro-Trump Californian pastor Greg Laurie in California.
  • Elsewhere in the same state, public health officials have linked a huge Slavic church in Sacramento with at least 71 cases of Covid-19. The senior pastor of the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church has been hospitalised with a severe case and services have now been suspended.
  • Police in New York have been forced to break up a large gathering of ultra-Orthodox Jews who had congregated for the funeral of a popular rabbi who had died from Covid-19. New York City is the epidemic of America’s epidemic and has seen more than 2,000 deaths already.
  • Some US megachurches have continued to holding Sunday worship, while Florida’s governor has issued an executive order exempting places of worship from the state’s social distancing laws. Dozens of other states have similar exemptions. Although almost all major denominations have ordered churches to close, some grassroots movements have sprung up to resist this, while a number of independent evangelical megachurches have chosen to continue meeting. Many pastors who have chosen to continue public worship argue the state has no authority to restrict religious activity, while others have even suggested the coronavirus pandemic has been overblown or is an attempt by the Devil to hinder Christian witness.
  • An Islamic missionary group in Delhi has been blamed by India’s government for speeding the spread of the coronavirus. A crowd of about 2,500 people – including hundreds from overseas – gathered at the Tablighi Jammat’s headquarters in Delhi in defiance of strict rules banning large meetings. About 650 so-called super-spreaders from this meeting have now tested positive across 14 states in India, while the leadership of Tablighi Jammat have gone into hiding from the police.

OTHER RELIGIOUS NEWS

  • Away from the coronavirus pandemic, the election of Keir Starmer as the new Labour leader has prompted a thaw in relations between leading Jewish community groups and the party. In his victory speech, Starmer vowed to tear out the “poison” of antisemitism in the party by its roots, and has already written to Jewish community leaders asking to meet.
  • An evangelical Christian charity has reached a financial settlement with three men who were abused by leaders associated with its holiday camps in the 1970s. The Titus Trust, which is the successor to the organisation which ran the Iwerne camps, has issued an apology to the victims of John Smyth, a leading QC who  – it was revealed before he died in 2018  – used to beat young men in his garden shed whom he had got to know during the holiday camps. A group of victims and survivors of abuse has called for the Trust to disband.