By Andrew Lim
The 2019-20 Covid-19 pandemic ranks as one of the biggest global pandemics alongside the Black Death, the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, and the 2003 SARS outbreak. What started as a local outbreak in Wuhan, China in late 2019 has since escalated and paralysed entire countries, international trade and travel. At the time of writing, internationally there have been more than 1.6 million cases and 100,000 deaths, with numbers rising. New Zealand has reported over 1,000 confirmed cases. The Government has closed its borders and imposed a nationwide lockdown and travel restrictions, closing most schools and businesses with the exception of essential services like healthcare, groceries, and law enforcement. To comply with social distancing rules, many government services, businesses, education providers and civil society groups have shifted to online, showing how essential the Internet has become to daily life in the 21st century.
This op-ed looks at how faith communities have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. Faith communities are not just buildings but also communities with a shared set of doctrines and beliefs. Throughout history, religious teachings have helped inform peoples’ beliefs, values, and worldviews on a wide range of issues. With the current pandemic, lockdown restrictions have forced many faith communities to abandon public gatherings, prompting many to adopt video conferencing technology, such as Zoom, Google Hangout, and YouTube Live. In some cases, however, religious mass gatherings have become clusters for the spread of the coronavirus due to a mixture of ignorance, misplaced faith, and a distrust of state actors. Examples of these new circumstances are in New Zealand, the Tablighi Jamaat conference in Malaysia, and the Shincheonji sect in South Korea. These new developments are discussed below.
In response to the rapid global spread of Covid-19 and the government-imposed lockdowns, many faith communities including churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and gurdwaras have suspended their meetings and services in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus and protect their congregants, particularly the elderly and young. As gathered groupings, Covid-19 has proven to be a major challenge for faith communities to disseminate religious teachings and maintain a semblance of community. However, this has also encouraged faith communities to experiment with new advances in Internet-based communications technology, particularly video conferencing and social media.
Across the world, several churches have experimented with holding online services and meetings through Zoom, YouTube, Facebook Live, Google Hangout, and Skype, a trend that has spread to New Zealand as well. These video conferencing technology and streaming platforms help to include sick, elderly, or shift-worker congregants, who cannot attend church. For congregants who are not Internet savvy or lack a reliable Internet connection, Christian broadcast media such as Radio Rhema, Live FM, and Shine TV have helped transmit religious information and maintained a sense of community. Still, in New Zealand many minority faith communities lack similar programmes catering to their spiritual needs. As the country’s population becomes more diverse and pluralistic, demographic changes would inevitably lead to more demand for broadcast and online media servicing minority faiths.
The video streaming revolution is the latest chapter in a long history of faith communities embracing advances in communications technology that include the Protestant Reformation in early modern Europe, propelled by the printing press, and televangelists who embraced television and radio to reach broad international audiences. Since the rapid growth of the Internet in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, many faith communities have created websites and social media accounts on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. Religious leaders have also made use of websites, audio podcasts and videos to spread their messages. However, religious communities have also become clusters for transmission of the coronavirus.
Causes of religious clustering
While most faith communities around the world have cooperated with government lockdowns, several have become clusters for the transmission of the coronavirus due to factors including ignorance, including around basic hygiene, misplaced faith, and distrust of government. Misplaced faith can stem from a belief that divine providence will provide protection from disease, persecution and violence. Some faith communities embrace a fatalistic theological worldview and may believe that God chooses whether a person can live or die. Taken to an extreme, this may lead adherents to shun protective measures. Other faith communities may have an antagonistic relationship with government authorities and wider society. These communities tend to have exclusivist beliefs and doctrines that shun non-believers as sinful. Meanwhile, authorities and wider society often regard them as fringe sects and cults with extreme beliefs and questionable practices. Using these three criteria, I will look at three cases: Destiny Church in New Zealand, the Tablighi Jamaat conference in Malaysia, and the Shincheonji sect in South Korea.
Destiny Church, NZ
First, while most New Zealand faith communities supported the Government’s lockdown measures, Destiny Church’s firebrand Bishop Brian Tamaki initially refused to close his movement’s churches, claiming that prayer would protect his congregants. This reflects Tamaki’s track record for courting controversy on various issues including homosexuality, tithing, pluralism, and his authoritarian leadership. In such instances, rather than being a source of hope and strength, faith can become a pretext for endangering the health of Destiny’s congregants, many of whom reside in low-income communities, and the wider public. While Destiny has since changed to offer services online, unnecessary strife runs counter to the religion’s fundamental premise to “love your neighbour.” Tamaki’s later pragmatic cooperation with the authorities probably helped save many from infection by avoiding clustering among Destiny Church’s congregations. But it may have initially shown misplaced faith in the divine, a distrust of the New Zealand Government, or anti-secular beliefs and worldview.
Sri Petaling Tablighi Jamaat, Malaysia
The second case is the Sri Petaling Tablighi Jamaat gathering held at Jamek Mosque in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur between 27 February and 1 March. The four-day Muslim conference was attended by 16,000 people including 1,500 foreigners from across Southeast Asia and Australia. Despite the ongoing pandemic, organisers took few precautions with many participants living, eating, sleeping, and praying in close proximity. As a result, the Sri Petaling Tablighi Jamaat became a major coronavirus cluster in Malaysia, causing cases to rise dramatically throughout Southeast Asia in March. By 19 March, the Sri Petaling Tablighi Jamaat had been linked to nearly 600 Covid-19 cases in including 513 in Malaysia, 61 in Brunei, 22 in Cambodia, five in Singapore, and two in Thailand. The Malaysian Government has now adopted tough measures such as closing the country’s borders and banning public gatherings and non-essential travel.
The Sri Petaling gathering was organised by Tablighi Jamaat, a Deobandi revival movement seeking to return Islam to the way that it was practised during Muhammad’s time. Tablighi Jamaat holds annual convocations where Muslims are encouraged to share their faith with the local community. While most Tablighi Jamaat missionaries shun modern communications technology in favour of door-to-door evangelism, some like Tariq Jameel have embraced the Internet and television. The Sri Petaling Tablighi Jamaat case suggests a combination of ignorance about health and misplaced faith in the divine. Participants trusted in God to protect them from illnesses but neglected to take actions to safeguard their health. However, unlike other cases where faith communities have hostile relations with governmental actors, the Sri Petaling gathering was organised with the permission of the Malaysian Government, who would have been sympathetic towards the group’s activities due to the privileged status of Islam in Malaysian society. The Sri Petaling Tablighi Jamaat serves as a cautionary lesson for organisers, and local and government authorities to take decisive action in combating pandemics.
Shincheonji Church, South Korea
The third case study is the Shincheongji Church of Jesus, a controversial Christian new religious movement in South Korea. Since mid-February 2020, the group has been linked to a cluster of cases in the South Korean city of Daegu after a female member, known as Patient 31, was hospitalised from a car accident and subsequently diagnosed with Covid-19. Prior to that, she had attended several church functions, infecting hundreds of others. While the Shincheonji leadership have since cooperated with South Korean authorities by supplying a list of their members, its role in the country’s coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a public backlash; with adherents facing ostracism and discrimination and the Mayor of Seoul suing the church’s leadership.
This antagonism is rooted in both the Shincheonji’s exclusivist beliefs and antagonistic relationship with mainline Christian churches, which have considerable influence in South Korea. The church believes that its leader and founder Chairman Lee-Man, is a prophesied pastor who will usher God’s Kingdom on Earth. Adherents believe that they are the Twelve Tribes of Israel prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Due to their exclusivist belief that they are the only true church among all other “false churches,” the Shincheonji church has clashed with mainline South Korean churches, who regard their teachings as heretical and oppose their practices of “harvesting” members from their congregations. In addition, Shincheonji has attracted negative publicity for its controversial recruitment practices in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Singapore.
As with the Tablighi Jamaat case study, the Shincheonji’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic stemmed from a combination of both its faith and poor relations with government actors and wider society. The Shincheonji practices of worshiping in close proximity and pressuring sick members to attend their services undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the coronavirus. These practices were rooted in the church’s belief that illnesses are the result of sin and that members should continue meeting despite being sick. In addition, several Shincheonji members concealed their membership from health authorities and refused to be quarantined. Their secrecy was in response to the deep public hostility towards the sect in South Korean society, which has been encouraged by mainline churches. According to the sociologist Massimo Introvigne, several Shincheonji members have faced deprogramming and violence, sometimes fatal, at the hands of their relatives and mainline Christian “heresy” ministries. Deprogramming involves false imprisonment, forcible re-education, violating people’s freedom of belief, and tearing families apart. As of 2020, South Korea remains one of the few international jurisdictions where deprogramming is legal. This hostility, however, serves to estrange Shincheonji adherents further from South Korean society.
The 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic has forced many faith communities around the globe to suspend public gatherings to help combat the spread of the virus. While it is normal for faith communities to congregate for worship and for special occasions like Passover and Easter, most recognise the need to safeguard the health and safety of their adherents and the wider community. Many believers interact with people from outside of their faith community through family, work, school and extracurricular activities. Suspending religious services does not imply a lack of faith but rather a commitment to basic tenets such as “loving one’s neighbour” and the “Golden Rule” by preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Though believers are unable to congregate physically, the Covid-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for faith communities to use contemporary video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, YouTube, and Google Hangout as means of keeping in touch. These can help maintain a semblance of community during the lockdown and can also be useful for those unable to attend services for work and health reasons in normal times. It’s another way that the Zoom revolution has become an essential commodity for global society.
These can help avoid the clusters of Covid-19 that emerged among religious communities due to ignorance of hygiene and science, misplaced faith in divine protection, and distrust of governments and wider society. As the examples above show, the unwillingness of some churches to suspend in-person services during the pandemic has had deadly consequences.
Andrew Lim is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Auckland.