Some U.S. religious leaders flout COVID-19 restrictions

Unfortunately, not that surprising among some evangelical groups:

School buses delivered hundreds of church-goers to Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Sunday, defying physical-distancing guidelines and the state governor’s direct order banning gatherings of more than 10 people.

Religious service, steeped as it is in community, is one area where people are finding it hard to avoid gathering amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And while some churches in the U.S. are finding innovative ways to continue services, such as conducting them virtually, a few are still gathering in person, potentially exposing many people to the novel coronavirus.

South Korea has experience with the danger of public worship services: More than half of the country’s coronavirus cases were linked to the branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu.

But Life Tabernacle is flouting officials’ pleas in a state where, as of Monday afternoon, more than 4,000 have been infected and 185 have died, according to an ongoing tally by Johns Hopkins University.Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, on March 22 ordered a lockdown of all but essential services, which did not include religious worship services, and prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people.The father of Life Tabernacle’s pastor Tony Spell says the church is an essential service.

“The church is not a non-essential. The church is the most essential thing in all the world,” Timothy Spell told NBC News outside the church Sunday.

“No one is telling anybody you got to come to church. We tell people not to come if you have a fever, if you have any symptoms, if you’re aged, if you’re elderly, don’t come.”

Florida pastor arrested

That’s got local residents like Ryan Tregre fuming.

“If they really worried about just spreading the [spiritual] word, they would go on Facebook Live or YouTube or some kind of way to spread the word where they would not have to go and meet in places and spread this virus that’s killing people every day,” he told NBC.Life Tabernacle wasn’t the only church to defy public orders and open their doors to parishioners on Sunday.A video posted to the Facebook page of the River at Tampa Bay Pentecostal church in Florida on Sunday shows hundreds of parishioners standing side by side.

Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne has said he would close services only for the Rapture and that shutdowns were for “pansies.” He reportedly held two services Sunday, flying in the face of physical-distancing guidelines and attracting the attention of the local sheriff’s department.

Florida has not ordered a statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses, but on Monday the Hillsborough County Sheriff charged him with unlawful assembly and a violation of health emergency rules.

Canadian clergy urge compliance

It’s a different story in Canada.

A statement released by religious leaders across Canada on Monday urged people to follow public health officials’ guidelines.David Guretzki, vice-president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada said there were no evangelical services that he knew of this past weekend and noted his group has signed on to statement.Still, members of all faiths are grappling with how to continue practicing.

Some mosques in the Toronto have stayed open after Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a province-wide state of emergency March 17.

In Montreal, police were called to a synagogue after receiving a report that someone saw Hasidic men going inside, CTV reported.

Social distancing measures like working from home, school closures and cancelling sporting events could lead to a drop of new infections of coronavirus. 1:54

“Some wonder if this is too much, too fast, but in general the approach has been that, no, the best approach is just to shut down,” said Daniel Cere, an associate professor of Religion, Law and Public Policy at McGill University in Montreal.

“My impression is that on the whole, in Canada, the religious communities have fallen in line with the government on this.”

‘God will take care of your body’

One religious scholar in the U.S. attributes the defiance to a particular type of Christian teaching.

“There is this strand in modern American Christianity that has rejected the norms of science and medicine and that thinks health can be achieved through discourse with the divine, holy spirit,” said Bradley Storin, director of religious studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

The philosophy is, he says: “If you are a good and true believer then God will take care of your body.”

He’s noted the church busing people in for services and passing out “anointed” handkerchiefs to people for protection.

“What we see pastor Spell doing is giving way to this ancient tradition of linking faith in God with healing in the body,” said Storin.

“It feels a little violative of the social compact that we have right now,” said Storin.

Source: Some U.S. religious leaders flout COVID-19 restrictions

And meanwhile, in Egypt:

For 55-year-old Coptic housewife Magda Mounir, knowing she can no longer pray at her local church is worse than all the precautions she has had to endure to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in Egypt.

“The church is our haven; it is where we go to find moral support,” Mounir told Al-Monitor a few days after Egypt closed all places of worship, including mosques and churches.

The Ministry of Religious Endowments, more often referred to as the Awqaf Ministry, and Egypt’s Orthodox Christian Church both released statements March 21 announcing they would temporarily halt communal prayers.

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, to which the majority of Egypt’s Christians belong, said it would lock down churches and suspend masses for at least two weeks.

In multicultural and multifaith Egypt, Christians make up roughly 10% of the country’s 100 million-plus population, with the vast majority of Christians in Egypt belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

“The holy week is coming, and we used to spend these days in the church. It seems this year we will not be able to do so for the first time in our lives,” Mounir said tearfully, referring to the Easter holiday on April 19.

Sandy Emad, a 27-year-old engineer, supports the ministry’s decision. “I support the decision [to close places of worship], and I can’t understand the anger of some people,” she told Al-Monitor. “We can’t kill ourselves and our families and say God will rescue us. God gave us brains to use and protect ourselves from any harm. This is what he ordered us to do,” Emad said.

“This decision is considered the most difficult decision the church has made in decades,” admitted Bishop Boules Boutros of St. Michael Church in the district of Heliopolis in Cairo. “However, it is necessary for slowing down the rapid spread of the coronavirus. God does not only exist in churches; we all have him in our hearts and can pray to him to heal the whole world,” Boutros said.

Boutros said he was not sure just how long the churches would remain closed, but it was unlikely they would be opened in time for Easter mass.

Egypt’s Awqaf Ministry decided to suspend congressional Friday prayers in all mosques nationwide until further notice. The suspension came after controversy erupted over Muslim worshippers insisting on flocking to mosques for Friday’s noon prayers despite a religious edict allowing people to pray at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“If it was necessary to shut mosques because of the crowd, why not close down the underground, which carries thousands every day?” Mohamed Abdel Monem, a 45-year-old Arabic teacher, said to Al-Monitor. “Now is the time most people need to resort to God and pray. Praying to God is our only way out of this ordeal,” he added.

But not everyone shares his views. Hassan Khaled, a 28-year-old graphic designer, agreed with the decision to shutter holy places. “Given that people insisted on going to the mosques despite the call to stay home, it is a wise decision to close down mosques,” he said. “If only one person is carrying the virus, thousands will be infected, and then they go home to infect their families,” Khaled added.

Khaled said while it is difficult to be deprived of places of worship during times like these, he also understands it is necessary for public health. “I imagine people will resort to praying in open areas if [prayers in mosques] continue to be banned,” he said.

Religion plays a major role in Egyptian society, so statements by religious authorities carry major weight on keeping people at home. Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s body responsible for issuing religious edicts, issued March 24 a brief statement warning that “any call for people to gather in the streets in any pretext or under a slogan” would be sinful as it would jeopardize public health.

The statement stressed it is a “duty” under Sharia law to comply with official decisions to “protect people from epidemics and diseases.”

The Awqaf Ministry also modified the adhan — the Muslim call to prayer — to include warnings to stay at home and take precautions on preventing the spread of the coronavirus. The new adhan, broadcast on radio and television a day after religious sites were closed, urges believers to take “the utmost caution in adhering to preventive and precautionary” measures.

Islamic scholars say the special adhan was previously used during natural disasters and pandemics as well as in earlier times in Islam’s history when people were instructed to perform prayers at home.

Meanwhile, Minister of Endowments Muhammad Mukhtar Juma suspended on March 22 an imam and a preacher in Beni Suef governorate, south of Cairo, for violating the ministry’s order to close mosques. The two men were banned from giving sermons from the pulpit for a period of three months.

“Preserving life is a main aspect of Islam, and the faithful should comply with preventive measures taken by the government,” Sheikh Mohammed Mehana of Al-Azhar University told Al-Monitor.

“The images of empty mosques would break any Muslim’s heart, but the priority now is to save people’s lives. This is what Allah asked us to do, and the rest is his will,” said Mehana, adding he hoped the crisis would end before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which starts on April 24 and goes until May 23, and that everybody would reunite for Taraweeh, the additional prayers carried out at night during Ramadan.

The Ministry of Health has reported some 609 cases of coronavirus and 40 deaths in Egypt so far.

A 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew has been imposed countrywide as part of strict measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly said March 23.

All masses as well as public and private transport are suspended during the curfew.

Source: Egypt Egyptians feel demoralized by empty churches, mosques

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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