Experts from religion, academia, human rights and public health outlined the vital importance of interfaith collaboration to address the global threat of COVID-19, during a virtual launch event for KAICIID’s interreligious guide to pandemic relief.
The event titled, #DialogueDespiteDistance: Resources for Combatting COVID-19, held on 15 December invited guest speakers to share practical examples of coordinated interreligious crisis response.
Dialling in from around the world, participants included Faisal bin Muaammar, KAICIID Secretary General; Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer, KAICIID Senior Adviser and co-author of the guide; Dr. Kezevino Aram, KAICIID Board Member; Dr. Aleksandra Djurić Milovanović, KAICIID Fellow and co-author of the guide; Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations; Imam Sheikh Mohammad Ismail DL, prominent British Muslim scholar; Rev. Dr. Martin Junge, General Secretary of The Lutheran World Federation; Prof. Katherine Marshall, Senior Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; Justina Mike Ngwobia, KAICIID Fellow and peacebuilder in Nigeria and Saydoon Nisa Sayed, a human rights activist from South Africa.
Kicking off the discussion, bin Muaammar acknowledged that COVID-19 has created many challenges for interreligious dialogue, but it has also proved its relevance and urgency.
“Since the very beginning of the pandemic, we have seen new and creative ways to respond to the virus from religious communities around the world, bringing initiatives that prevent community disconnection, isolation, wastage of resources, and distrust,” he said.
The KAICIID guide, released last week, draws upon these real-world examples, offering practical advice for faith groups facing up to the difficult realities of COVID-19, such as a spike in prejudice and hate speech, and the need to move worship and pastoral care into the digital realm.
These challenges began to emerge soon after the virus went global, explained Abu-Nimer, who played a key role in the guide’s formulation.
“I was wondering why there were very few interfaith voices in response to COVID-19 in the first two or three months of the pandemic,” he said.
Abu-Nimer believes this is often because leaders of religious communities are trained to take care of their own families and congregations first, before reaching out to others – an instinct which often hinders large scale, coordinated crisis response and fails to adequately address widespread challenges.
“By the time religious leaders ask themselves the question: ‘What and how should I be working with other groups,’ we are way into war, way into the crisis situation.”
Abu-Nimer pointed to the current pandemic as a prime example of how coordinated interfaith response is crucial to preventing further global crises driven by violence and unrest. “In the absence of interfaith dialogue, fear and suspicion of ‘the Other’ fermented, fuelling xenophobia and religious intolerance,” he said.
Aram added that the virus has been termed a “great equaliser,” threatening all communities regardless of ethnicity or religious tradition.
“We know the pandemic has touched more than two hundred countries, we know it has touched many, many millions of people around the world,” said Aram, who champions child development and interreligious dialogue initiatives in her native India.
“It hasn’t spared the rich, it hasn’t spared the poor. It hasn’t spared the Hindu, it hasn’t spared the Christian. It’s a very non-discriminatory virus.”
The answer to this, she continued, is the channelling of patience and understanding central to all religions.
“For the first time we have realised that we have to listen to one another, and this is where the value of our traditions come in. In the Hindu tradition, they say if you want to honour somebody truly, open your heart, open your ears, and open your mind.”
Interreligious synergy is a key theme running throughout the Centre’s COVID-19 guide, which offers recommendations for initatives such as cross-community public prayer sessions, joint statements of solidarity and collaboration on relief activities.
Junge offered Tuesday’s virtual audience an uplifting example of this unanimity in action, pointing to a letter sent in April from the Mufti of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore to the National Council of Churches in Singapore, which commiserated over the fact that the need to physically distance prevented them from sharing in joint Easter celebrations.
“They expressed solidarity with them — what a strong signal,” Junge said, noting that Singapore's Christian community returned the gesture when Ramadan celebrations were similarly curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions.
However, Marshall added that while these expressions of goodwill are important, religious communities need to go further by reinforcing vital public health messaging, particularly in regard to inoculation.
“We have new hope of emerging from the immediate crisis stage with the approval and start of vaccination campaigns. But we also have some major problems with the vaccine, with enormous hesitancy, terrible misinformation, and doubts,” she said.
“This is a major strategic challenge for religious communities, to identify where the doubts are, to have a dialogue about how to engage, and how to address the reasonable and unreasonable fears that people have.”
This is particularly true in parts of the world where trust in government is low, according to Elder Justina Mike Ngwobia. Her experiences with local interfaith work in Nigeria helped shape the Centre’s COVID-19 guide, detailing the importance of faith actors when authorities are distrusted.
“In Nigeria, religious leaders are first responders in crisis situations,” Ngwobia told the webinar.
“During awareness sessions we really had to make communities understand that COVID-19 was a reality, because it was very difficult for them to understand because they did not trust the government, and thought it was just another way to punish citizens.”
Bin Muammar said he hopes the recommendations shared in the guide by contributors like Ngwobia will help others surmount the challenges of the pandemic.
“We have sought to produce a practical, actionable guide for everyone who seeks to replicate these results in their own community,” he said.
“This is at the core of our mandate, which is to convene a space where these discussions can take place and where support can be asked for, and found.”
You can read the The International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID)’s COVID-19 Interfaith Guide here.