BACKGROUNDER |COVID-19: THE IMPACT ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM WORLD-WIDE
By Maria Lozano
“The need to halt the spread of the virus has also had implications for a number of fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom, restricting public worship and the educational and charitable activities of faith communities. It must be recognized, however, that religion is a fundamental aspect of the human person and of society, and cannot be eliminated. Even as we seek ways to protect human lives from the spread of the virus, we cannot view the spiritual and moral dimension of the human person as less important than physical health.”
No event in modern history has affected the lives of the world’s population so significantly and universally as the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of race, colour or creed, the pandemic tore at the fabric of public health institutions and upended previous practices in the global economy, and in government, often with profound implications for human rights, including that of religious freedom. The impact of the illness has not only revealed underlying societal weaknesses, but in many areas of the world exacerbated existing fragilities resulting from poverty, corruption, and insecure state structures.
Several African governments, overwhelmed by the challenges posed by the raging pandemic, redeployed military and security forces to support the healthcare needs of the general population. Particularly in the early months, terrorist groups and jihadists took advantage of the government distraction to increase their violent attacks and entrench territorial gains. The pandemic was also used by extremist groups to recruit new members. Numerous Al-Qaeda, Daesh (Islamic State) and Boko Haram internet-based propaganda publications described COVID-19 as a punishment from God for the “decadent West”, promised immunity against the virus and assured a place in paradise for jihadists. Across the Sahel region – including Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria – as well as in the Cabo Delgado region of northern Mozambique, Islamists regrouped, rearmed and reinforced existing structures and alliances or created new ones.
States too took advantage of the confusion. Particularly authoritarian regimes, for example China, used the epidemic to place greater restrictions on the practice of religion and shut down websites streaming religious services.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted not only in a global health crisis, but also a world-wide economic recession. Fear and uncertainty about the infection, and frustration at the repeated lockdowns, triggered social unrest and prompted vitriolic attacks, especially on social media, on scapegoats whether racial or religious. Conspiracy theories proliferated online claiming that Jews caused the outbreak, in India allegations were made against Muslim minorities, while in several countries – such as China, Niger, Turkey and Egypt – the pandemic was blamed on Christians. Pre-existing societal prejudices against religious communities also led to increased discrimination through a denial of access to food and medical aid – for example, in Pakistan, Muslim charities “denied food aid and emergency kits to Christians and members of minority communities”.
On the other hand, the pandemic inspired positive examples where religious groups supported each other. In Cameroon, thousands of Muslims joined Christians for Christmas Day prayers for an end to the pandemic and for peace. In Bangladesh, where due to infection fears minority faith groups were unable to offer the last rites to family members, an Islamic charity buried not only Muslim but also Hindu and Christian victims of COVID-19. In Cyprus, where border restrictions prevented Christians and Muslims from visiting their respective religious sites, several Turkish Cypriot Muslims prayed at the Tomb of the Apostle Barnabas, the Patron of Cyprus, as a gesture of goodwill and respect to Christians who were unable to visit. Finally, as an example of a positive state response, the communist government in Cuba allowed a broadcast of the Way of the Cross with Pope Francis and the Easter liturgies, for the first time on national television.
Government reaction to the medical emergency profoundly affected fundamental human rights, including freedom of assembly and religious freedom, provoking debates as to the implications of the political decisions taken. It is difficult to assess to what extent the right to religious freedom was threatened universally because each country, and in some cases each region, responded differently to the global event.
It is evident that the world confronted an unpredictable emergency and world leaders were called upon to take extraordinary measures, improvising with untested legislation as the situation deteriorated. However, within this framework, it is also clear that there were cases of abuse and attacks on religious freedom, in part by means of disproportionate application of restrictions to religious activities, as compared with commercial activities, but also through aggressive police and military tactics in addressing breaches of restrictions related to religious practices.
Examples of disproportionate restrictions on religious practice were in evidence in some states in the USA and in Spain, where attendance at religious services was very restricted while places of business or recreation were allowed to welcome customers in greater numbers. Furthermore, despite court appeals addressing the contradictions, in some cases the regulations were not changed and no reasons were given for the decisions (see the country reports). In terms of aggressive security responses, incidents arose when limits on attendance at religious ceremonies or places of worship were not clear, and the legal ambiguity created a practical uncertainty, resulting in excessive reactions by the security forces.
The COVID-19 pandemic opened an important debate around the world about fundamental rights, including the right to religious freedom, the implications of legislative overreach, and whether, in some cases, aggressively secular governments are adequately able to discern the importance of these rights.
 Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, 8th February 2021; http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2021/february/documents/papa-francesco_20210208_corpo-diplomatico.html
 “Extremist Groups Stepping up Operations during the Covid-19 Outbreak in Sub-Saharan Africa”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1st May 2020; https://www.csis.org/analysis/extremist-groups-stepping-operations-during-covid-19-outbreak-sub-saharan-africa
 “How Is Boko Haram Responding to Covid-19?”, by Audu Bulama Bukarti, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, 20th May 2020; https://institute.global/policy/how-boko-haram-responding-covid-19 (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “Corona als ‘Strafe Gottes für dekadenten Westen’”, by Johannes Dieterich, Der Standard, 16th April 2020; https://www.derstandard.de/story/2000116913040/corona-als-strafe-gottes -fuer-dekadenten-westen (accessed 30th January 2021); “ISIS tells its followers to show no mercy and launch attacks during coronavirus crisis amid fears counter-terror efforts will be weakened by the outbreak”, by Alice Cachia, Daily Mail, 2nd April 2020; https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8180683/ISIS-tells-followers-no-mercy-launch-attacks-coronavirus-crisis.html?ito=social-twitter_mailonline (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “Mali, der Terror im Sahel und Covid‑19. Das neue Bundeswehr-Mandat für die Beteiligung an MINUSMA”, by Wolf Kinzel, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 27th April 2020; https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2020A27/ (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “Burkina Faso: Entire towns and villages emptied or cut off – not because of COVID-19, but because of terrorism”, ACN International, 8th May 2020; https://acninternational.org/burkina-faso-entire-towns-and-villages-emptied-or-cut-off-not-because-of-covid-19-but-because-of-terrorism/ (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “How China’s Technocracy Uses the Pandemic to Suppress Religion”, by Heather Zeiger, Mind Matters News, 18th October 2020; https://mindmatters.ai/2020/10/how-chinas-technocracy-uses-the-pandemic-to-suppress-religion/ (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “Israel predicts rise in anti-Semitism, as virus-related hate is spread online”, The Times of Israel, 24th January 2021; https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-predicts-rise-in-anti-semitism-as-virus-related-hate-is-spread-online/ (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “U.S. envoy calls out COVID-19 related harassment of minorities in India”, by Sriram Lakshman, The Hindu, 15th May 2020; https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/us-envoy-calls-out-harassment-of-minorities-in-india-over-covid-19/article31591566.ece (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “Hebei, Christians labelled ‘spreaders’. The return of Nero”, by Shan Ren Shen Fu, AsiaNews, 8th January 2021; http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Hebei,-Christians-labelled-%E2%80%98spreaders%E2%80%99.-The-return-of-Nero-52016.html (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “Niger: Coronavirus pandemic – Is there a danger of renewed anti-Christian riots, as happened after the ‘Charlie-Hebdo’ incident?”, ACN International, 5th May 2020; https://acninternational.org/niger-coronavirus-pandemic-is-there-a-danger-of-renewed-anti-christian-riots-as-happened-after-the-charlie-hebdo-incident/ (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “Attacks on Turkish Churches as Some Blame Christians for COVID-19”, Missions Box, 26th June 2020; https://missionsbox.org/press-releases/turkish-churches-attacked-as-christians-are-blamed-for-covid-19/ (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “Oppression of Egyptian Christians worsens during COVID-19 pandemic”, by Kevin Zeller, Mission Network News, 29th September 2020; https://www.mnnonline.org/news/oppression-of-egyptian-christians-worsens-during-covid-19/ (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “ACN reaches out to Pakistan’s Christians hit by Covid-19 crisis”, by Robin Gomes, Vatican News, 17th May 2020; https://www.vaticannews.va/en/church/news/2020-05/pakistan-covid19-lockdown-christians-discrimination-aid-acn.html (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “Cameroon Muslims Join Christians in Christmas Prayer for Peace”, by Moki Edwin Kindzeka, VOA News, 25th December 2020; https://www.voanews.com/africa/cameroon-muslims-join-christians-christmas-prayer-peace (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “Humanity and harmony in the time of Covid-19”, by Stephan Uttom/Rock Rozario, UCA News, 17th July 2020; https://www.ucanews.com/news/humanity-and-harmony-in-the-time-of-covid-19/88809 (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “Cuba #Coronavirus: Gobierno concede espacio radial y televisivo a la Iglesia”, by Alina Tufani, Vatican News, 1st April 2020; https://www.vaticannews.va/es/iglesia/news/2020-04/cuba-coronavirus-gobierno-concede-espacio-radial-tele-e-iglesia.html (accessed 30 th January 2021).
 “Supreme Court says Nevada can impose tighter virus limits on churches than casinos”, by Richard Wolf, USA Today, 24th July 2020; https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/07/24/supreme-court-nevada-covid-rules-can-favor-casinos-over-churches/5454128002/ (accessed 30th January 2021).
 “El arzobispado de Barcelona denunciará a la Generalitat por limitar a 10 personas el funeral por las víctimas del coronavirus”, by José Beltrán, Vida Nueva, 26th July 2020; https://www.vidanuevadigital.com/2020/07/26/el-arzobispado-de-barcelona-denunciara-a-la-generalitat-por-limitar-a-diez-personas-el-funeral-por-las-victimas-del-coronavirus/ (accessed 30th January 2021).