Prof. Azza Karam is Secretary General, Religions for Peace International
– — I have never been interested in religion or spirituality before, but I found myself tuning in to all sorts of on-line religion and spirituality related forums “in search of something.”
These are the words of a 30-something single young, middle class man (born into a Protestant-Catholic family background) in a European country.
The latter is known more for turning several churches into museums or shopping centers, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. When people are afraid, lonely and alone – they tend to seek “something” beyond science.
A quarter of Americans say their faith has become stronger because of the pandemic, according to a Pew survey conducted during April 20-26, 2020, of 10,139 U.S. adults.
But this is to be contrasted with the experiences of those from an older generation (60+) in the southern hemisphere, like my own 85-year old Muslim father, who lives to pray. For him, the mosque has, over the last decade since my mother’s death, become both his spiritual hub and social club.
His cohort is differing ages of retirees, who, in spite of very different political perspectives in a Middle Eastern country reflecting the now normal of intense polarization, treasure their prayerful community spaces. This middle class (an endangered species to be sure) of retirees, share a sense of deep faith informing their social and political convictions.
For many of them, the lockdown was experienced primarily s an inability to go to the mosque, and thus as almost physically painful. None of them countenanced the idea of on-line prayers, that doesn’t make any sense, they maintained. Their sense of depression was almost palpable throughout the lockdown period, as was their joy at the reopening of some mosques.
The coronavirus presents barriers to caring for the sick and to performing certain death and burial rites which are core religious practices, and especially needed in a pandemic that has already claimed nearly hundreds of thousands of lives.
In Sri Lanka for example, public health measures for safe burial practices have already challenged traditional rites, wherein authorities mandated cremations for Covid-19-linked deaths, despite the fact that cremation is supposed to be forbidden in Islam.
Covid-19 also complicates Jewish and Muslim burial practices of washing and cloaking bodies before burial, given concerns about transmission. Innovative religious responses seeking to reconcile public health policies with traditional burial practices have been taking place.
In Israel, for example, bodies are wrapped in plastic before burial, and before that, ritual washing is completed while wearing full protective gear. Some Islamic scholars are providing exegesis and guidance on how the ritual of washing the body prior to burials, could be conducted safely whilst following Islamic principles.
This echoes what occurred during the Ebola crisis in West Africa. In fact, while COVID-19 differs from HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Tuberculosis, and Ebola, there are nevertheless some important similarities.
In cases of dealing with diseases where transmission affects large numbers of people, and vaccines and medication remain relatively hard to find and/or provide to all affected, beyond the health inequities which are underscored during such times, there are critical lapses by national and international authorities in acknowledging and supporting the role of religious leaders.
In fact, during previous outbreaks of HIV/AIDS (around the world), and of Ebola in Central and West Africa, the strengths of religious communities were rarely incorporated into public policy – until national and international secular authorities lose the plot.
In Religions for Peace (the only multi religious organization representing all religious institutions and communities around the world with 90 national and 6 regional Inter-Religious Councils/IRCs), a founding mantra is that caring for the most vulnerable is deeply embedded in all faith traditions.
As a result, religious institutions, communities, and faith-inspired/based NGOs (or FBOs as they are often referred to), have historically served as the original providers of essential social services. In fact, FBOs are the first responders in most humanitarian emergencies. Their work includes providing spiritual sustenance for sure, but also hunger relief, heath care, and shelter.
This is not only a feature of the developing world. Samaritan’s Purse set up a health center at the height of the pandemic in Central Park – an icon of New York city. Caritas, at one point, was feeding 5,000 people a day, in Geneva, Switzerland.
For 50 years, Religions for Peace worked to equip its IRCs (through the respective religious institutions and services) to seek peace through advocating for human rights (including the rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as women, religious minorities, the disabled, elderly, and youth), mediating conflicts, providing emergency humanitarian relief, and contributing to sustainable development efforts (including health, nutrition, sanitation, education and environmental sustainability).
The defining feature of Religions for Peace IRCs is multi-religious collaboration. The main principles of this collaboration are representativity and subsidiarity. In the case of the former, each IRC earns Religions for Peace affiliation by ensuring its governance represents each and all of the nations religious institutions, and communities. In return, each IRC is guaranteed its independence to determine its national/regional priorities, and its modus operandi.
Half a century of collaboration with several United Nations entities at different moments in time, provides a comparative context to enable an assessment of how the UN works with some religious actors.
At the very least, this historical time-line of partnership efforts on peace and security, sustainable development and human rights, provides a learning context. It is with that in mind that we can say that UN efforts in seeking partnerships with faith-based NGOs in facing the Covid-19 implications, are noticeably on the increase relative to pre-Covid dynamics.
Entities like UNHCR, UNICEF, UNAIDS, WHO, and even non-operational entities like the Secretary-General’s own office, as well as UN Office of Genocide Prevention and Responsibility to Protect, have, respectively, issued statements specifically calling on religious leaders and actors to uphold their unique influences (noted above), sought religious input on and in Covid Guidance documents, and (are) hosting multiple consultations to strengthen myriad joint responses.
Working with multiple stakeholders, Religions for Peace research is revealing that while some religious charities are struggling to find resources to continue their services for communities, other FBOs are able to raise more resources for pandemic relief, than anticipated.
This is particularly the case for Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist organisations in countries in Asia, but also Muslim and Christian charities in Africa and the Middle East.
Almost 90% of Religions for Peace IRCs reported a 100% increase in engagement (asks) of their advocacy and messaging efforts from/by national governments, particularly as of May and June 2020 – as compared to this time last year.
This is evidenced through national campaigns during religious occasions and holidays, as well as local awareness raising efforts by religious leaders in particular, as opposed to faith-based NGOs.
Out of the Covid response efforts tracked by 25 Religions for Peace IRCs in 4 regions, thanks to the Multi-Religious Humanitarian Fund administered by RfP, multi-religious efforts are, on average, much harder to encourage than efforts administered by Ecumenical or single religion organisations.
A rough estimate shows that out of the nearly 100 humanitarian assistance projects being tracked by RfP in 40 countries in parts of Africa and Asia, only 1 percent involve multi-religious efforts. Several IRCs have also reported finding it harder to even advocate for multi religious collaboration to provide pandemic assistance (food and medicine packages) in conflict impacted countries (i.e. more than it normally is to seek to mediate some of the conflicts and/or work with governments in mediation efforts).
While it is now almost a cliche to call for more partnerships with religious, or faith-based actors, this is simply not good enough. FBOs, like many NGOs fully immersed in relief efforts, are finding several (good) excuses not to work together.
Faced with a global pandemic, even the FBOs – ostensibly inspired by religious calls for serving all, including the most vulnerable – are less keen on collaborating across their multiple differences (institutional, theological, structural, financial and political), as they continue to serve millions.
Is it enough to serve all who need regardless of religious affiliation (the current bar against which religious NGOs are often measured by the UN and other international entities), or should a pandemic inspire more, and better collaboration among multi-religious partners?
One can but wonder what the relative lack of religious NGO collaboration may foretell for social coexistence after the pandemic, not to mention what this lack of collaboration spells for the legitimacy of the so-called prophetic voice many of them speak of.