On April 11, the UN-secretary general, Antonio Guterres, urged religious leaders of all faiths to unite and work together to fight the common battle against COVID-19. “We are on the same boat … each of us in need of comforting the other”, said Pope Francis to encourage interfaith solidarity during this pandemic. Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, has recently started the ‘Bridging Divides’ campaign to remind us how saving our common humanity from the virus requires co-existence of- and co-operation from diverse faith groups.
The call for interfaith solidarity is echoing at a time when governments are discouraging or even forbidding all kinds of public gatherings including religious festivals, rituals and large congregations. The major places of worship- mosques, churches, synagogues and temples- are either closed down or providing very limited services. Pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina for Muslims and to the Vatican City for Christians were suddenly halted.
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Regardless of our faith, this pandemic has certainly affected how and where we worship and express our religious sentiments. Due to strict stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures, millions had to be separated from their friends, neighbours, religious communities and even families on Passover, Easter, and Shab-e-Barat (the night of forgiveness), the major religious occasions for Jews, Christians and Muslims respectively. These are occasions traditionally celebrated by gatherings of communities, communal prayers and shared meals among families and friends. As the coronavirus is increasingly disrupting lives, religious communities are struggling to maintain their traditional practices.
In Canada, more than eighty religious leaders from different parts of the country provided a common message to remind Canadians of their shared responsibilities to ensure safety for each and every individual. The message says, “love, which gives life its fullest meaning, continues to seek out the common good in spite of individual difficulties” reflecting the unity of beliefs and practices among the country’s diverse faith groups.
A podcast posted on the World Economic Forum describes how religious leaders from Christianity, Judaism and Islam have come together in the US to develop creative ways to provide comfort, care and worship services to individuals and families via different digital media (e.g., Zoom calls, Facetime, Facebook Live, and Skype), raise people’s awareness regarding transmission of the virus, and share information on safe ways to practice rituals at home.
At the international level, Religions for Peace (RfP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also launched a global Multi-Religious Faith-in-Action COVID-19 Initiative to strengthen the critical roles of religious leaders in shaping community mobilization to fight the pandemic. The initiative aims to engage senior leaders from different faith groups to find common theological opinions that motivate people to follow international and national health authorities’ guidance related to religious gatherings, services and rituals, and promote religious teachings on hygiene, sanitation and cleanliness. Commonalities and shared beliefs among religious groups are emphasized in finding solutions to deal with uncertainty and challenges surrounding the pandemic.
Any careless and misleading information from religious leaders could result in violation of social distancing measures causing further spread of the virus and more death
Religious beliefs and practices greatly influence community perspectives and attitudes toward health crisis and emergency situations. During this outbreak, any careless and misleading information from religious leaders could result in violation of social distancing measures causing further spread of the virus and more death. We have seen how using messages, such as ‘God will save righteous people from the virus’, and how some religious leaders organized large Islamic congregations in India (Tablighi Jamaat), Indonesia (Ijtima Jamaat Tabligh) and Bangladesh (Khatme Shifa) have put the lives of many people in danger. Multifaith unity and collaborative efforts are very much needed to prevent the occurrence of such gatherings and continue the fight for saving humanity from this pandemic. The ways in which several multifaith alliances are promoting messages, such as ‘love your neighbour’ and ‘saving lives is the best prayer’ to encourage people to adhere to health and safety measures and mitigate this pandemic is praiseworthy.
There is also an ongoing discussion among spiritual leaders across the world on how the texts on charity, care, and compassion that are common in most religious traditions can be used to cope with social distancing guidelines suggested by doctors and health experts. This interfaith dialogue is not only providing a source of support, comfort and hope regarding prevention of the outbreak but also holds long term potential for addressing conflicts among religious groups across the globe. The continuation of interfaith alliances could play an effective role in enhancing peaceful co-existence among communities with diverse religious backgrounds throughout and beyond this pandemic.