A man serves panchagavya, a traditional Hindu ritual mixture made of cow dung, urine, milk, curd and ghee, to supporters attending a cow urine party to fight the spread of the coronavirus in Indian capital New Delhi on March 14. (Photo: AFP)
A Facebook post that went viral convinced Pakistani Christians that a young Catholic priest had died of Covid-19.
The post, which has been shared hundreds of times, claimed that Father Samran Anwar, parish priest of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Gujranwala, had succumbed to the virus. “May his soul rest in peace,” it added.
Prominent human rights activists and church workers including Yasir Javed, vice-president of Sacred Heart Cathedral parish youth in Lahore, shared the post. “Please keep in prayers. May the Lord comfort the family and the community of priests,” Javed wrote.
The Church was quick to clarify the actual situation. “Please be informed everyone that the death of our beloved Father Anwar was not due to Covid-19 as someone has announced and published on social media,” the vicar general of Lahore Archdiocese posted on his Facebook page.
Another Catholic even shared the medical report of the late priest that attributed his sudden death to cancer.
Sadly, nobody wanted to verify the news, contact church authorities or even watch the online Requiem Mass for Father Anwar held on June 6.
Keyboard warriors are now calling for the “urgent need to save the Church,” associating the 32-year-old priest with Ejaz Alam Augustine, Punjab’s minister for human rights, minority affairs and interfaith harmony, who announced on June 7 that he had tested positive for Covid-19 and is quarantined at his home in Lahore.
Hoaxes and misinformation are adding to the challenges of the Pakistan Church alongside the disruption of worship and community activities. Intensive care units nationwide have come under pressure as the national Covid-19 tally passed 103,000 with 2,067 deaths.
The sudden surge in cases follows the opening of more businesses after Prime Minister Imran Khan said the economy could not bear the impact of a longer lockdown.
Khan defended opening mosques under standard operating procedures (SOPs), claiming that Muslim places of worship had no role in spreading Covid-19.
The ‘smart lockdown’
Churches were also allowed to hold congregational prayers only on Sundays under SOPs, but the wise leaders of the archdioceses of Lahore and Karachi, the country’s most populous cities, were forced to make the hard decision to cancel festivities of culture, food and fun for the health and safety of devotees.
The so-called “smart lockdown” goes against the advice of doctors and other health professionals who wanted tougher lockdown measures including the closure of mosques.
In a recent article, I.A. Rehman, spokesperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, accused the government of yielding to pressure groups including the religious lobby, profiteers and beneficiaries of Eid shopping and Eid travelers in its Covid-19 policy during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.
“During the holy month of Ramadan, quite a few elements advanced their agendas under the epidemic cover. The religious lobby increased its bargaining position vis-à-vis a religiosity-inclined government. As Eid drew closer, they warned the government of dire consequences if it tried to regulate the congregations,” he stated.
The same lobby is behind the dubious claims about Sana Makki, a herb that is part of Tib-e-Nabvi (Prophetic Medicine) treatment, as a coronavirus remedy. The popular dogma is similar to the "cow-pee-cow-dung vaccine" practiced by hardcore Hindus in neighboring India.
In Lahore, traders can be seen kissing Sana leaves in reverence before selling them for more than 1,000 rupees (US$6) per kilo. Its price before the pandemic was only 200 rupees per kilo.
While some Hindus advocate drinking cow urine while performing a ritual in front of a fire, clerics recommend mixing “Islamic honey” in Sana Makki tea. Islamic Shehed (Honey) Centre is another popular chain of stores inspired by the wisdom of Prophetic Medicine. Instead of curing the virus, the new treatment reportedly causes dehydration, some virus patients told me.
News channels are hurting their own credibility by broadcasting interviews with doctors claiming unscientific cures amid the crisis, not to mention the global mockery it invites. As the whole world awaits a vaccine, such treatments can be deadly.
Similarly, activists should double-check their sources before sharing “breaking news” about the Church and making it viral. Cyberspace can be an excellent venue for psychosocial support. Church activists and organizations should make YouTube videos and discussion forums to help families adopt to a new way of life. Experts should be invited to spread awareness about staying fit, online study and even online prayer.
The Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Catechetics specifically addressed this concern in a notice shared in April. “It is observed that while watching live Masses on Facebook some participants ignore its importance and keep lying in bed, holding a cup of tea and watch their mobile as if watching a movie. Online Mass demands serious preparation,” it stated.
Surviving the virus, living in lockdown, rising unemployment, artificial price hikes and witnessing the tragic Pakistan International Airlines crash last month have already made the future seem very insecure.
But it is time to look ahead. Pope Francis has already opened a wider year-long commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the publication of Laudato Si’, his encyclical aimed at spurring global citizens to adopt more sustainable practices.
Caritas Pakistan summed it all in its latest tweet: “It’s time for nature and to reflect on what led to the present pandemic. Let us help the world in healing and building a better future for coming generations.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.