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COVID-19: Exploring Faith Dimensions
Freedom of Religion or Belief During Coronavirus Outbreaks

Faith leaders and communities around the world provide essential services and advocate for those most affected by continuing (and in some cases worsening) outbreaks of COVID-19. This generally builds on, adapts, and expands on existing programs, but in some instances it reflects urgent new initiatives. Examples include in Pennsylvania, where the Department of Health is teaming up with faith-based communities in the state to launch faith-based COVID-19 testing centers that will allow for more accessible testing in close-knit communities. The Vatican is active in confronting the effects of the pandemic on a global scale through distribution of funds to churches in need. They also call in different settings for World Bank and IMF support to African nations confronting the economic impact of the pandemic. The lay Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio adapted its annual Prayer for Peace as a hybrid event in Rome where Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew, and Italy’s president participated - an impressive demonstration of interfaith solidarity and prayer (also here). Rev. Augusto Zampini, the leader of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission, recently spoke with project leader Katherine Marshall. Clips from the full interview, which will be available next Friday, cover a range of topics including the roles religious communities play during the COVID-19 crisis
We’ve seen other major demonstrations of faith solidarity, including continued coverage of the G20 Interfaith Forum. Christians in northern Iraq are working to secure affordable and reliable supplies of effective medicines and oxygen tanks to distribute among COVID-19 victims, and Muslims in Kenya are training religious leaders on COVID-19 home-based care. In the United States, where COVID deaths have far surpassed any other country, faith leaders across traditions joined together last week for an initiative called Mourning into Unity, which draws attention to the importance of grieving together. 
Unfortunately, there is also plenty to report reflecting major clashes and tensions. New York continues to be a focal point, with both churches and synagogues protesting against the state’s handling of new COVID restrictions. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn spoke out as his diocese argued in court against new state restrictions on religious assembly, saying “we are relegated to the sidelines... ‘Religion is the problem of society,’ the way people think today.” A Jewish congregation also expressed frustration over COVID restrictions saying, “it’s sad that nobody verified our plans before attacking us,” after state health officials took extraordinary steps to shut down an ultra-Orthodox wedding planned for last Monday that reportedly could have had brought up to 10,000 guests to Brooklyn. The Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Religious Freedom Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team, and Asma T. Uddin, a religious liberty lawyer, also filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief with the Second Circuit in support of a Jewish community’s lawsuit challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order. They explained that they “believe that the Islamic faith teaches Muslims to want for others what they want for themselves, and that supporting the Jewish community in this case is in the interest of the common good.” They argue that “too often, religious minorities have served as scapegoats in times of sickness, war, and fear—from Jews during the Black Death, to Jehovah’s Witnesses during WWII, to Muslims after 9/11.”
On the other side of the story are health officials, including at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who suddenly find themselves embroiled in sensitive and often politicized battles over balancing respect for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) with recommending unbiased safety measures during a global pandemic. ProPublica released a report this week on “the fall of the CDC,” which examines this issue among others as having contributed to a challenging chapter of the organization’s history. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) recently released a report on “Human Dimension Commitments and State Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic” that addresses FoRB among the human rights challenges it identifies as having been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 emergency. 
Another point fraught with tension involves the reporting itself of these contentious stories. Jenna Ellis, attorney for Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church (a megachurch in Los Angeles), recently called a Los Angeles Times headline “grossly misleading” when it reported “‘Coronavirus outbreak strikes L.A. megachurch that defied public health orders’” after three positive tests were reported among church members. Myal Greene writes in an opinion piece that misinformation continues to be a deadly aspect of this pandemic, and that faith communities must be engaged to help combat against it. 

To that end, we are continuing to collect and share practical information directed towards and/or developed in close consultation with religious communities worldwide. An example is this collection of guides we encountered that was compiled by Tearfund, a Christian international relief and development agency. We have added this and many additional resources to our own ever-growing repository of information related to the intersection between faith and COVID-19. Katherine Marshall recently sat down with Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia for a video conversation to discuss the repository and her broader work on the intersection of faith and international development.
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If you have news articles, guides, or other relevant resources you wish to share with us for review please email We are particularly interested in learning more about groups facing acute vulnerabilities (refugees, elderly, those impacted by the digital divide, in fragile states, etc.). Please send us any information you see.
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