Most of the countries used physical means, such as arrests and prison sentences, to enforce coronavirus-related restrictions on worship services and other religious gatherings in 2020 even as religious groups defied public health measures.
In a new report, the PEW Research Centre said (46 out of 198, or 23 per cent) of the countries used physical means. The Pew Research Center’s 13th annual study of restrictions on religion around the world also noted that one or more religious groups defied public health rules related to the COVID-19 pandemic in 69 countries and territories (35%). Whereas, in 47 per cent of the countries studied, religious leaders or groups promoted public health measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus by encouraging followers to worship at home, observe social distancing or take other precautions, such as hand-washing and mask-wearing.
FORCE AGAINST RELIGIOUS GROUPS
In 46 countries and territories, or 23% of all those examined in the study, government authorities used force to impose coronavirus-related bans or limits on religious gatherings in 2020, the report said.
Detentions were the most common type of force used against religious groups when they were deemed in violation of public health guidelines. The governments arrested and held worshippers or religious figures for gatherings that violated public health measures, or for other actions by religious groups relating to the pandemic, the report said.
It said that police detained Shiite worshippers in Azerbaijan who had gathered in several cities to commemorate Ashura, an Islamic holiday, in violation of a ban on gatherings. In the United States, police in New Jersey arrested 15 people at a rabbi’s funeral that violated the state’s ban on public gatherings. In India, the Government placed more than 900 members of the Islamic group Tablighi Jamaat and other foreign nationals “in quarantine” after they participated in a conference in New Delhi in April 2020.
In Myanmar, leaders of religious minority groups complained that pandemic-related health measures were enforced much more harshly against Muslims and Christians than against Buddhists. For example, 12 Muslim men received prison sentences of three months for holding a religious gathering in a house in Chanmyathazi Township. In a separate case, a Christian pastor was sentenced to three months in prison for holding a prayer session. In contrast, none of the 200 attendees at a Buddhist monk’s funeral were arrested; the organizers were fined instead.
In 11 countries, authorities’ use of force against religious groups includedphysical assaults. In Comoros, Gabon and Nepal, police used tear gas to disperse religious gatherings that violated COVID-19 lockdown rules. In China, more than 300 members of the Church of Almighty God (also known as Eastern Lightning) were arrested in February and March 2020 during pandemic-related identification checks and home inspections, and some were subjected to beatings and electric shocks, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom. And in Zambia, human rights organizations asserted that police sometimes used excessive force against religious groups when enforcing COVID-19 rules.
Authorities in 10 countries confiscated property or carried out raids to shut down religious gatherings. In Israel, police targeted Jewish communities deemed to be at the epicenter of outbreaks, deploying security forces in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, breaking up gatherings at synagogues and sending helicopters to hover low over crowds. In Mexico, authorities raided a church in the state of Durango during a clandestine Mass and expelled the worshippers. And in South Korea, police raided the Sarang Jeil Church, which was reportedly at the center of a coronavirus outbreak in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province. The headquarters of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus also was raided, largely due to its violation of public gathering restrictions and the church leader’s refusal to provide health authorities with membership lists for contact tracing, the PEW report said.
It said that authorities displaced religious figures by expelling or repatriating them back to their country of origin in four countries. For example, in Equatorial Guinea, authorities disbanded two religious groups – the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, run by missionaries from Brazil, and the locally based Ministry of Liberation, Health and Prophecy – for violating pandemic-related restrictions. They also canceled the residence permits of the groups’ foreign pastors and other leaders and ordered their deportation. And in Singapore, authorities deported five South Koreans who were part of an unregistered local chapter of the Shincheonji Church, in part because of the group’s links to COVID-19 clusters in South Korea.
In the report. PEW Centre also comes talks about pandemic-related killings of religious minorities. It said that two Christians in India died after they were beaten in police custody for violating COVID-19 curfews in the state of Tamil Nadu. In Indonesia, authorities killed six members of a banned organization called the Islamic Defenders Fund (FPI) – a group they were shadowing partly because its leader failed to appear for a summons on a charge that he had violated COVID-19 protocols. And in Yemen, Houthi rebels in control of territories encompassing most of the country’s population used the pandemic as an excuse to expel thousands of Ethiopian migrants, many of whom were Christians, according to the U.S. State Department. Dozens reportedly were killed during the expulsions.
BLAMING RELIGIOUS GROUPS FOR SPREAD OF VIRUS
The PEW Report said that blaming of religious groups for the spread of the pandemic was seen in 18 countries (9% of the total analyzed). In Pakistan, Shiite Muslims of Hazara ethnicity who returned from a pilgrimage to Iran were targeted and blamed for the spread of the virus by officials in Balochistan province, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). In Cambodia, the government in March 2020 began officially singling out Muslims by including a “Khmer Islam” category in statistics on infection rates, after reports emerged of Cambodian Muslims returning to the country with COVID-19 from a religious gathering in Malaysia. And in Canada, Hutterites (an Anabaptist group living in communes throughout North America) claimed they faced social discrimination after provincial governments publicized COVID-19 outbreaks in their communities, which they said amounted to “cultural and religious profiling.”
The PEW Centre also reported instances where private individuals or organizations targeted religious groups through social hostilities related to the outbreak. It said that 39 countries (20% of the total number studied) reported private individuals or organizations linking the spread of the coronavirus to religious groups in 2020. In more than half of these countries (23 out of the 39), such comments were made against Jews. In France, social media users shared antisemitic tropes with caricatures of a former Jewish health minister that depicted her poisoning a well – an insinuation that Jews were responsible for the pandemic. In the United Kingdom in 2020, antisemitic conspiracy theories spread online, claiming that Jews were in control of the global lockdowns and were using the pandemic to “steal everything.” In Morocco, a man was arrested for social media posts in which he accused a Jewish citizen and a foreign national of infecting many people with COVID-19.
CRITICISM AND DEFIANCE OF COVID-19 MEASURES
This study also looks at whether religious groups in each country publicly criticized or objected to COVID-19 regulations. During 2020, religious groups in 54 countries (27% of all analyzed) criticized public health measures related to COVID-19 – such as restrictions on public gatherings – and in many cases alleged that the measures violated their religious freedom, the report said.
In Argentina, for example, the president of the interfaith Argentine Council for Religious Freedom criticized the government for not declaring priests, ministers and other employees of religious organizations to be “essential” workers like doctors, nurses and home health care providers.
In Sri Lanka, Muslims objected to mandatory cremations of those who died from COVID-19, saying the policy violated the religious rights of the deceased and their relatives to have a traditional Islamic burial, and noting that international public health guidelines allowed for burials of coronavirus victims. And in the United States, lawsuits over state and municipal health restrictions were filed by numerous religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and several synagogues and rabbis in New York, contending that pandemic-related restrictions violated the guarantee of “free exercise” of religion contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the Philippines, for instance, religious leaders said their institutions were unfairly targeted for closure when shopping malls and other stores were allowed to reopen for business before houses of worship could reopen for religious services. Similarly, in Belgium, a group of Catholics asked the Council of State to overturn the suspension of church services, pointing out that large crowds were permitted to go to shops but not to Mass.
COOPERATION BETWEEN RELIGIOUS GROUPS AND GOVERNMENTS
Thouigh tension prtevailed between religioous organisations and governments, the report by PEW talks about governments collaborating with religious groups to promote public health measures in faith communities.
Religious leaders or groups in 94 countries (47% of all those analyzed in the study) encouraged followers to worship at home, promoted online worship, or engaged in other efforts to stop the spread of the virus, such as mask wearing and social distancing.
In Benin, for example, the government consulted with religious leaders and an inter-ministerial committee before imposing lockdown measures and later reopening places of worship. In some parts of the country, local officials relied on religious leaders to share accurate information about the coronavirus, help stop the spread of misinformation and encourage public health measures such as social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing.