A man who attended a Muslim conference held by Tablighi Jamaat in Indian capital New Delhi, where many participants tested positive for coranavirus, arrives to be tested in Allahabad on April 1. (Photo: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP)
It is now clear that religious gatherings around the world, some attended by thousands of people, have contributed to the spread of Covid-19, yet still people refuse to heed these warnings. This is fast emerging as a problem for many Asian countries vastly under-resourced in terms of medical facilities and expertise.
The most striking cases were two Muslim conferences that have helped to accelerate the spread of the deadly virus across South and Southeast Asia.
The first, held outside Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia from Feb. 28 to March 1, was attended by as many as 16,000 people from the host country as well as from neighboring Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and elsewhere.
On March 3, Tablighi Jamaat, an India-based global Islamic movement with followers in more than 80 countries, began a conference at its international headquarters in New Delhi. Thousands attended and the disease was spread through India and into other countries, with at least 10 participants reported to have died from Covid-19.
Islam may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time — had Holy Week been upon us at an earlier time in the cycle, fingers would have been pointed elsewhere — and it is hardly alone in its unknowing culpability.
It is also true that 200 members of doomsday cultist Christian sect Shincheonji Church of Jesus in South Korean city Daegu held a meeting with brethren in Wuhan — the Chinese city where its appears the virus was first transmitted from animals to humans — in December, creating an epicenter in South Korea.
Similarly, an evangelical church conference in France is now seen to be an epicenter of that country’s coronavirus outbreak.
On Feb. 25, Hong Kong’s government revealed that six people were infected after visiting the Fook Wai Ching She Buddhist temple on Hong Kong Island at the end of January or early February. The temple has since been linked to 16 infections.
These are only the best-documented examples. Who knows who spread what, where and when during the early days of the virus spreading beyond China’s borders? What is quite hard to comprehend is how some insist on flagrantly ignoring these deadly lessons.
Ironically, the situation in Daegu was instrumental in the South Korean government moving swiftly and particularly effectively to tackle Covid-19. The country has been internationally lauded as one of the best models for dealing with the disease. Other countries have been far slower to take note, to the detriment of their citizens.
Some countries and Islamic and secular leaders — as well as a handful of renegade Catholic priests in the Indian state of Kerala — have still not learned the simple, deadly lesson: religious gatherings are no different from any other mass gatherings and can be epicenters of the disease.
With 25-50 percent of Covid-19 infections now thought to be asymptomatic (not displaying any symptoms) and the virus taking three or four days and sometimes longer to incubate, there is simply no way of having safe religious celebrations.
This is particularly true of Muslim-majority Pakistan and Bangladesh, where people have continued to attend the faith’s main event, men-only Friday prayer meetings. While the minority Shia sect has decided to comply with restrictions in both countries, conservative Islamic groups continue to resist.
Last week witnessed unseemly and unnecessary clashes between authorities and theologically misinformed worshipers hell-bent on showing their disregard for others by attending prayer services in mosques across Asia.
This is true in parts of Indonesia, which has the single largest Muslim population on the planet, despite the efforts of the government and the country’s two largest Muslim associations, which have well over 100 million members between them.
It’s also worth noting that evangelical churches, particularly among Christian denominations, have also resisted calls to close, especially in the United States, Brazil — where the Catholic Church is battling collapsing numbers against rising numbers of Pentecostals — and Africa.
In this situation, it is unfortunate for Islam that it has no figure with such central and overwhelming authority as Pope Francis.
The pontiff announced on March 15 that the Vatican would be holding Holy Week services without a congregation, driving the message home by walking through the streets of Rome to pray at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and the church of San Marcello al Corso to pray before a wooden crucifix said to have protected Rome from a great plague in 1522.
Just to make sure that his message was clear that holding Masses was a health risk, in one of the most stunning moments of his papacy Francis stood alone in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 27 to relay his message about this dreadful moment for humanity
To their credit, some Asian bishops’ conferences moved almost immediately to follow the pope’s lead, but others, notably Indonesia’s, were slower
Still, dangers lie almost immediately ahead. For Christians, there is, ironically, temptation to celebrate the faith’s most important festival, Easter, this coming weekend — and on the following weekends for various Orthodox churches.
For Muslims, the dangers are even greater, with the holy fasting month of Ramadan, characterized by group prayers each day, due to start on April 23 or 24 (depending on time zones and countries) and ending with the Eid-ul-Fitr celebration.
Muslims who continue to insist on attending prayers are risking the health of both their fellow believers and others in their communities. Their leaders, like priests and pastors who insist on celebrating Mass and holding other church services, monks and abbots who encourage people to file into Buddhist temples, and Hindu pujaris who do the same, are morally and spiritually bereft and culpable for endangering their followers.
It is vitally important for the future of many of their followers, as well as the credibility of their faiths, that all religions and their leaders, no matter how conservative and book-bound, commit to being part of the solution to this unprecedented pandemic, which looks set to be with us for a long time, rather than part of the problem.