On April 8, the chief of All India Imams Organisation, Umer Ahmad Ilyasi, appealed to Muslims across India to observe Shab-e-Baraat within their homes and adhere strictly to the lockdown rules.
During Shab-e-Baraat, Muslims stay awake all night in supplication and prayers. The popular festival of the Islamic calendar has believers across India and most of South Asian Musims visit burial grounds and mosques to pray for the deceased.
This year, Shab-e-Baraat coincided with the weeklong Jewish Passover holiday, when families gather to remember how they were delivered from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago. During the celebratory affair, families and friends crowd around dinner tables to feast and bond.
But in these unprecedented times when physical closeness—once seen as a source of spiritual solidarity—comes with the risk of an already aggravated public health crisis, are religious leaders doing enough to enforce the codes of social distancing? When so much depends on exercising prudence over displays of faith, can public health guidelines trump freedom of religious expression?
To comply with the social distancing guidelines after the nationwide lockdown order end-March, temples such as Sri Venkateswara in Tirumala, Jagannath in Puri, Somnath in Gujarat, Siddhivinayak in Bombay, and numerous other shrines, mosques, synagogues and gurudwaras shut their doors.
The priests urged devotees not to gather in people’s homes as shared ritual spaces could pass the virus from one to another. They said some of the ancient traditions had to be adapted or scuttled to deal with one of the biggest public health crises of the century. An atomistic experience of the holy gained through reflection and alone-time was advocated as the new spiritual path forward.
Even as prayers surged, gods of the Hindu pantheon were padlocked and houses of worship sent their congregants home. But some leaders challenged this “secular pressure.”
Right after the Modi government banned religious congregations across India, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath attended an event to shift the idol of Ram Lalla within the temple site in Ayodhya where nearly 100 people had allegedly gathered after taking “all precautionary measures.”
On Ram Navami—particularly important to the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism—devotees scrambled to seek Lord Ram’s protection from the pandemic outside numerous temples in Bengal.
Before the lockdown was imposed nationwide, the office-bearers of two temples in Kerala were booked for their inability to contain the fervour of hundreds of devotees who participated in a religious procession, disobeying social distancing rules enforced by the state.
Even though houses of worship have shut their doors and many services have moved online or are being conducted privately, it’s unclear how many people are still attending ritual services, or how many of them are taking place in the cities, small towns and villages across India.
It’s easy to spotlight Tablighi Jamaat—the Muslim missionary movement, which had organised a religious gathering in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area early March. When the authorities shut its doors on March 22, over a week after their congregation, it emerged that gatherings at the Markaz -- as the Jamaat headquarters is called -- had caused the biggest Coronavirus spike in India.
The authorities started screening people staying at the Markaz only after March 26.
The government went further to claim that 8,000 visitors, including foreigners, had visited the Tablighi headquarters in March, and heaped criticism on the missionary for its “carelessness.”
Until now, 25,000 Jamaat members and their contacts have been isolated across 15 states in India after the state governments launched a countrywide search to track down the Markaz attendees and the people they came in contact with.
The blatant communalization of the incident, with BJP leaders calling the religious gathering “Corona terrorism”, has deflected attention from a more urgent problem—what are the responsibilities of religious leaders worldwide, besides disallowing people from congregating at sanctified spaces?
In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox health minister Yaakov Litzman, was confirmed to be infected with Coronavirus even as he allegedly resisted calls to impose restrictions on gatherings at religious institutions until a few weeks ago. Along with Litzman, other ultra-Orthodox leaders claimed closing religious seminaries was more harmful than the virus itself. Not surprisingly, the central Israeli city of Bnei Brek with a substantial ultra-Orthodox Jewish population has become the country’s worst affected region, with experts estimating that nearly 40% people are infected in the city.
In the United States, a newly-formed group of theologians and ministers calling itself the Easter People have sent an open letter to the Catholic bishops, calling for public mass and access to the holy sacraments. “Something is terribly wrong with a culture that allows abortion clinics and liquor stores to remain open but shuts down places of worship,” said the group, whose popularity is growing.
Some priests have continued to hold worship services in areas where public safety is seen as sort of a false idol and where devotees preach their loyalty to religion over science.
But instead of being worried about how to stay afloat, scouting for sources of financial support, and seeing the crisis as a threat to their congregations, religious leaders should focus on the wellbeing of the worshipper. For without the worshipper, faith communities could evaporate.
Some faith leaders have started innovating so as not to cause pariahs in their communities. They are providing spiritual support to believers by streaming their services on Instagram and Zoom.
“Because I’m not physically close to you, doesn’t mean I can’t be emotionally close to you,” said a senior pastor at Rock Church in California, which moved to online streaming recently.
Ahead of Easter, many churches in Maharashtra have started holding their services on social media platforms, encouraging parishioners to stay home and maintain social distancing.
In Ahmedabad, minority leaders have aggressively been campaigning to enforce social distancing after several districts reported a spike in COVID-19 positive cases. They are quoting from the Hadith and other religious texts to explain the importance of social distancing to communities that draw succor from spiritual solidarity.
A leader from Jamiat-Ulama-e-Hind, in a video shared widely on social media, said, “Being a religious leader, people follow our word. Whatever preventive instructions the government is giving regarding COVID-19, we give them a religious form so that people understand them easily.”
Beating down the pandemic through definitive action is the need of the hour, and those with a social conscience should indeed concur with each other instead of pointing fingers at minorities and convenient scapegoats. This is especially important since weeks or even months of lockdown could permanently alter people’s faith habits.
Reverend Biju Thampy of a local church in Goregaon, who held an online service recently, said, “We believe the church is the people and not the building. At a time like this, it is our number one responsibility to be responsible citizens.”
(Priyadarshini Sen is an Independent Journalist based in Delhi. She writes for India and US-based media. Views expressed are personal.)