This was originally published by The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) and republished here with the author’s consent.
Monotheistic Religions and the Corona Crisis
The Coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on the world of religion. This is both a complex and multi-faceted subject. As a first attempt at analyzing this subject, it is useful to focus on three major issues: the attitudes of religious leaders, the impact on believers and their rituals, and efforts to give a theological meaning to the pandemic.
The largest number of Coronavirus deaths in Western Europe have occurred in Italy, Spain, France, the U.K., Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. These are countries that have seen a great increase in secularization in recent decades.
Is it too bold an idea to think that the Corona pandemic created a unique occasion for religious leaders to call upon all their believers to become a pioneering group in assisting health workers, organizing charities, helping those alone and so on? While this may have occurred on a local scale, it has not been an international movement encouraged by religious leaders. Has this opportunity to reinforce the place of religion in society been squandered?
Secularization has been greatly helped by the widespread belief that individuals determine their own futures. Yet the coronavirus has created huge uncertainties. How is the sickness passed from one person to another? Even those who display no symptoms can infect others. Why is there such a difference in the degree of the sickness, which befalls various victims? When will there be a vaccine available and when will the pandemic end?
A secular person is often largely alone spiritually when confronted with death. In monotheistic religions, to varying degrees, community is important. In a period of such uncertainty, religion had, at least theoretically, a new chance. An American theology professor, Marcellino D’Ambrosio, compared the current plague to the one which devastated Rome in the third century. He was inspired by how then the Christian community was transformed into a battalion of nurses.1
Perhaps the answer to the inability of Christian leaders to lead society is that only long ago in Europe religious leaders were opinion leaders. They have since been reduced to opinion followers. When the opportunity for a comeback arose, they were unable for a fast paradigm shift. They were stuck in general societal debates, such as climate change and immigration.
Catholicism is the most hierarchical religion in Europe. When analyzing the role of top religious figures, it makes sense to start with the statements of its current leader Pope Francis. He delivered his Easter message in an empty St Peter’s Basilica.2 He called for global solidarity to fight the virus. The Pope warned that the European Union risks collapse, urged debt relief for poor nations, and called for the relaxing of international sanctions. His authority in these areas is weak at best. None of these topics touch on religious issues.
UN Secretary General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire at the end of March.3 The Pope supported this appeal in his weekly blessing. This was a typical example of being an opinion follower rather than a leader. There was, however, one sign of specific action. The Pope established an emergency fund at the Pontifical Mission Societies. This fund aims to support the presence of the Church in mission territories. Yet, the mission territories are far from the countries hardest hit by the virus.4 The Pope also created a special prayer.5
The statement of the Pope about the cause of the pandemic was not theological, but rather ecological. He spoke about catastrophes and said, “I don’t know if these are events of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses.”6 Yet he could have stressed that Nature is, theologically speaking, a creation of God.
Queen Elizabeth of England is not a religious leader even though she is the symbolic head of the Church of England. She gave her first ever address to mark the Easter holiday. The queen mentioned that the resurrected Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday gave his followers “new hope and fresh purpose and we can all take heart from this.”7 It was a spiritual appeal. The tenor Andrea Bocelli sang at Milan’s empty cathedral – as a symbol of hope — in an online concert which millions around the globe watched.8 Jews worldwide were called upon to participate in the writing of a unity Torah scroll.9
The White House called on faith-based groups and churches concerning the virus.10 Much of that effort was about telling worshippers to follow the guidelines. These instructions affect religious freedom, including the proper execution of rituals. It is indeed important that religious leaders tell worshippers to follow the guidelines. The world’s leading Sunni cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has called for mosques around the world to suspend all congregation meetings including weekly Friday prayers.11
American Jewish orthodox sociologist, Samuel Heilman, pointed out that Judaism is a religion so wrapped up in communal life that physical closeness with others is critical to feeling a spiritual connection to the community and thus to God, and the religious dangers of quarantine are significant.12 For the ultra-Orthodox this is even more the case than for others. There is an above average percentage of ultra-Orthodox victims both in Israel and abroad as a result of their customs and beliefs.13 14
A mega-church gathering of evangelicals in France is thought to be at the origins of the country’s major outbreak of the pandemic. In Bourtzwiller, a community of the town Mulhouse, a gathering took place in February of more than 2000 worshippers. They had come from all parts of France. Germans also participated. These believers carried the virus throughout France and into Germany.15
The coronavirus outbreak and subsequent government measures affect many believers in very different ways. When analyzing the impact of the virus in the personal sphere, it may be for part of them a major issue on how their religious activities are affected. Muslims and Jews, even if they cannot go to their mosques or synagogues, can say their daily prayers at home. For a Christian, not being able to go to Church on Sunday may be more problematic. Churches which rely mainly on collecting monies from those present on Sunday may face financial difficulties. Yet there are many other problems far from the public eye. For example, many North African Muslims in France expect, when they die, to be buried in their country of origin. In the absence of flights this has become extremely difficult, if not impossible.16
It may be too early for theological explanations to be given by mainstream figures. Instead, there has been an upswing in extremists who claim to know what God means by the pandemic. One Muslim preacher speaking on Palestinian Authority TV said that Corona is one of Almighty Allah’s soldiers and Allah is punishing the sinners. Those who attack his believers. 17 Israeli Minister of Health, Jaakow Litzman, was falsely accused by a Pakistani website of attributing the virus outbreak to homesexuality.18 Extremist pastors and rabbis blame the pandemic on homosexuals.19 The Chief Rabbi of the Israeli town of Safed said that the pandemic happened because the world is coming closer to the days of the Messiah.20
Over the course of time some believers will start telling the media how the lockdown and other measures have influenced their spirituality and relationship to God.