Religion should help contain the virus not spread it

By Claude Salhani

The deadly coronavirus does not discriminate. It will attack anyone, regardless of socio-economic background, nationality or religion.

The virus, first detected in China late last year, has spread around the world faster than many expected. Doctors, scientists and research specialists in viruses have been trying to establish a pattern. The virus seems most serious for the elderly and people with underlying health conditions, including those whose immune system are weakened by age or illness. However, it also affects young and healthy people.

It does not matter if a potential victim prays in a mosque, church or another sacred place, all are vulnerable.

Scientists have established that crowds contribute to the spread of the coronavirus because it can be transmitted from one person to another with relative ease. With that in mind, authorities should look closely at upcoming religious holidays that typically attract large numbers of people in relatively small places.

As unpopular as directives postponing or cancelling religious festivals, pilgrimages and processions that typically attract tens of thousands, are, the outcome would be far more beneficial than allowing the gatherings to take place and having to deal with a huge surge in deaths and increase in number of people infected with the novel coronavirus

Iran, which has been particularly hard hit by the virus, has sites in the country that are sacred to Shias. So do other countries in the region.

The Shia site of Karbala, visited annually by an average of 8 million pilgrims in central Iraq, is the grave of Hussain ibn Ali, as well as those of martyrs of the battle of Karbala in 680.

More than 1 million people visit the city each year for Ashura, which this year falls on August 28-29. The Ashura processions draw huge crowds in Tehran, Karbala and Nabatiyeh in southern Lebanon. Men of all ages utter religious chants while striking their bodies with a sharp knife or machete until they draw blood that flows over a white cloth.

In Syria, the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque is in the southern suburbs of Damascus. Twelver Shia Muslim tradition holds that the mosque contains the grave of Zaynab, daughter of Imam Ali and Fatima, and daughter of the Prophet Mohammad. (Sunni Muslims and Ismaili Shia place Zaynab’s tomb in the mosque of the same name in Cairo.)

The mosque in Syria became a popular destination of mass pilgrimage by Twelver Shia Muslims beginning in the 1980s. The height of the pilgrimage season normally occurs in the summer.

Allowing Shia pilgrims to visit holy sites and parade through the streets of the city in large processions, as they traditionally do, would result in the death of many.

The problem cuts across sectarian lines. Ramadan, the holy month of Islam when people fast from dawn to dusk, begins April 23. If there is no strong public awareness, it is likely to draw Muslims, Shias and Sunnis, to mosques, streets, coffee shops and family gatherings, even if quarantine measures remain in effect. Ramadan should not be an excuse to flaunt confinement orders.

Salafists and other hard-line Islamists have challenged governments’ restrictions, including mosque closures. They tried to invest in the religiosity and fatalism of segments of the population. Widely circulated fatwas insist that those who die because of an epidemic are considered martyrs.

Ultra conservatives ignore the fact that preservation of human life is considered by most mainstream Muslim scholars as the first priority of the faith. Religion should help contain the virus not spread it.

There can be no excuse for governments and populations not acting prudently. There is a dire need to replace the destructive narratives of zealots with sound health education so the danger of the virus can be understood by the populace. The time to act is now because later will be too late.

Governments should draw on the lessons about the cost of unbridled religious gatherings in the time of the coronavirus.

The issue is not exclusively reserved for Muslim pilgrims. In the southern United States, some preachers refused to abide by orders to stay at home but rather welcomed their congregations, saying that God would provide on the protection they need. Eventually, police shut down the services.

In Eastern France, the Evangelical church’s mass gatherings are suspected to be at the source of many of France’s virus spread. It was also the case in South Korea.

Governments ignoring on dangerous Shia or Christian religious processions and similar gatherings will have but themselves to blame. Religion is not the culprit. People are.

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