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Religious Freedom In Times Of COVID-19 – OpEd

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Covid-19 as of May 2, 2020 has affected over 3,398,550 including about 239,448 deaths and over 1,080,101 recovered cases. The aforementioned figures in here almost 2,079,001 active cases (95%) in which 51,355 are in critical conditions (worldometers, 2020). The present situation of the living planet has turned out from endemic to pandemic. 

The acute crises generated by Corona virus throughout the world is beyond our imagination. The exclusive measures to meet out the present crises in the present situation is none other than avoidance of human contacts and sanitizing the exposed part of the body, specially till the virus is totally exterminated. Thus, the fundamental and the common saying, “prevention is better than cure” has to be materialized.

The heart-soothing news is that over 1,319,549 cases have been closed and approximately 2,027,569 patients (98%) have suffered mild attack of the deadly disease (ibid). WHO has recorded 2,24,172 confirmed deaths and 31,75,207 confirmed cases as on 02 May 2020 (WHO, 2020). Similar data have been shared by Johns Hopkins University (Univeristy, 2020). In fact, it can be presumed that the statistical figures given by the government and mass media may vary on account of the internal policy frame work of their operational dynamics.  

Covid-19 is a pandemic disease and there is no doubt that people across the globe are getting infected regularly and the cases of infections and deaths are increasing by galloping pace. The world is worried and concerned about health and well-being of people and humans as a race. It has nothing to do with religion, caste, creed or colour. The past, pandemic cases of Spanish flu of 1918 or that of Hong Kong flu of 1968 or Ebola virus of 2013-16 or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome had no differentiation other than infection that lead to deaths of millions of innocent human beings. The pandemic affected and brutally killed humans across the planet. Any one who was affected, had low immunity, could not pull through and succumbed to the disease.

The entire world today is obsessed with identifying and treating patients affected by the Corona virus. Governments of different countries are burning midnight oil to find ways and means to prevent the wide spread infection from one corner to other parts of their country. They have closed borders to prevent the virus transcending the political boundaries. US and Canada, despite being very good neighbours, have closed down borders. Almost all countries have banned flights from/to their countries. Why is all this fuss?? Simply to safe guard people from getting infected and to prevent further casualties. It is well known fact that the spread of disease is in exponential terms and multiplies at unimaginable speed. Hence, we should not only be serious and cautious but also abide by the rules and orders of the government. 

However, a disturbing trend has been noticed this time in certain parts of the world primarily in Muslim dominated countries (smith, 2020). It appears that they are afraid of nothing and sincere prayers will save the population from this deadly disease. Muslim clerics have conveyed openly that the faith in The Prophet is supreme and He will save everyone.

  • Malaysia reported mass gathering and prayers of almost 16000 people from 27 February to 01 March 2020 (Sukumaran, 2020) on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur at Sri Petaling mosque.  Known to have been organized by Tablighi Jamaat, an old missionary cult, their leaders asked people to go back to days of Mohmmed Prophet, live together, pray together and share common platform for Vaju (personal cleaning before prayers) People stayed in tents, and prayed together at the mosque. Large number of foreign travelers had participated in the prayers and have carried the virus at home and their localities.
  • Bangladesh reported that influential religious leaders called for community prayers on 19 March 2020 at Raipur in Lakshmipur district that was attended by 1000 people. BBC Bengali correspondent Akbar Hossain reported the figures as 30,000 and that there was no permission taken from the authorities (Hosain, 2020).  The event was based on the fact that the people post these prayers will be healed from deadly Corona virus.
  • Indonesia reported that same cult ‘Tablighi Jamaat’ which planned another religious prayer over three days, 19-22 March at Gowa in province of South Sulawesi (News, 2020). Intervention by the authorities led to cancellation of the event but by then over 10,000 people across the world had gathered in the town. 
  • India reported mass gathering for prayers on 20 March 2020 (Friday prayers) in Mumbai, Kolkata, Patna, New Delhi, Sri Nagar, Ahmedabad (News18, 2020) even while the Prime Minister announced self-initiated curfew. Claims of sanitization and hygienic conditions are made but how far do these fructify is a matter of personal and social sensitivity.  The short clips, videos, photos and messages of various types generate fear in the common masses about orthodox character of rigid and rudimentary perspective of illogical and unscientific band of people from certain section of society. The suitable example that can be quoted is the protest at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi. 

On the contrary, there are Muslim countries that have banned central prayer together at any mosque. Turkey is one of the leading countries. Mr Ali Erbas, Head of Religious affairs of Turkey has very strongly conveyed that Islam does not permit putting human life in danger. All prayers in congregations have been suspended. Other countries that have now banned central prayers are Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

 There is partial ban on congregation and central prayers at mosques in Saudi Arabia (less prayers in Macca, Medina mosques), Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya and Kuwait. Various flights have been banned and attempts are made by some of these countries to prevent importing the virus through immigration. Yet there are countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and some LDC countries that are yet to initiate an effective action to arrest the trend. Indonesia, the largest Muslim dominated country in the world has not put any ban on central prayers so far. Thus, it has increased the risk of infection among all the devotees. People are free to offer namaaz at Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta. The disease is known been originated from Wuhan in China and has engulfed 212 countries. Major countries that have suffered deaths are China, Italy, Spain and majority of Europe and Middle East. However, infections from Muslim countries’ mass prayers are becoming visible now. Malaysia has 6002 full blown cases with 102 deaths. Cases of Indonesia have also crossed 10000 mark. Impact of slow or no action by some of these Muslim countries is likely to affect the humanity drastically. Pakistan is a country of over 200 million Muslims have Muslim clerics like Sabir Durrani, Head of Islamic lobby and Mirza Shahzad Akbar, Special assistance to Prime Minister Imran Khan have been advocating central prayers, emotional and religious connect of the people (Shahjad, 2020). 

Issue at large is survival of humanity and not of a religion. The same very countries on finding out that the cases of Corona virus are spreading withing their country or being imported or exported are realizing the gravity of situation. One can have the choice of life only if humanity lives through this pandemic.  Cases of deaths are spiraling out of proportion and countries are fighting tooth and nail to control the disease. Many countries have started banning congregation and even lockdown to prevent further spread of the virus. Malaysia has now ordered complete lockdown in the country. But, the damage been done already. Within couple of days, the impact will be visible at global level. One has to wait and see the impact in days to come. 

Impact on India

India is sitting on the edge of explosion of the pandemic. The way congregation has taken place, even a fraction of infection in each of these congregations is sure to set the infectious ball rolling. More so, there have been cases of Indians returning home from the Middle East and South East Asian countries.  Sheer ignorance of the magnanimity of the devastation is likely to play havoc in the masses. Some irresponsible behaviours like the common mass prayers, washing hands with the same water, inadequate hygienic conditions and simple thought of severity of the deadly disease appears missing at many places.  When some of these carriers of Covid-19 escape from hospitals or hide the disease coupled with lack of adequate testing facilities, is likely to further accentuate the deteriorating condition. Indians, irrespective of religion have to take personal responsibility of ensuring all possible preventive measures and the government has to be proactive in its approach to contain the virus in Stage 2 itself. Aggravation of the situation to stage 3 is a sign of danger that India has to avoid at all costs.

Fortunately for India, extreme sensitivity shown by the government in handling the situation should help out. Janta-curfew to locking down of four states and 75 districts are steps in right direction. Provisioning of testing equipment and creating new quarantine facilities are need of the hour. As the lockdown encompasses greater swathes, the time bomb of Covid – 19 ticks; the world waits with bated breath. 

Stay Home, Pray at Home is the answer to safety of humanity in times of Covid-19.

*Brig JS Rajpurohit, Ph.D is a decorated officer of the Indian Army with a superior record of successfully delivering results while commanding a force of thousands, leading planning, execution and co-ordination of operational, administrative undertakings in military, civil, industrial and academic fields. Presently serving as Group Commander, NCC Group at Gorakhpur (UP). Visiting faculty to large number of militaries, civil and corporate institutions. Expert in project management methodologies.

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