Religion in a Crisis: Faith Communities and COVID-19

“This pandemic shows us that our economic, social, political, [and] cultural systems are not working,” Imam Abdullah Antepli, Associate Professor of the Practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke Divinity School, announced to a gathering of more than 40 scholars, religious leaders, and students from around the globe.

This convening typically takes places annually as part of an international conference and summer school to confront the most pressing issues in religious traditions. This year’s virtualized event, hosted by the International Network on Interreligious Research and Education (INIRE), in collaboration with Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII (FSCIRE), highlighted how the pandemic challenged religious communities and also spurred them to action to confront those challenges.

Malachi Hacohen, Director of the Religions and Public Life Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and co-organizer of the event, commented that the Network’s aim “to address a central problem to religious traditions, explore innovative solutions and advance interreligious dialogue” seemed best directed to  the pandemic at this moment. As Alberto Melloni (Director of FSCIRE, Professor of History of Christianity at the University of Modena-Reggio) suggested, “COVID was asking religious communities, religious doctrines, and religions as faith systems to prove to be useful.”

Reflections from students and from leaders in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions offered both justification and critique of the response to the global crisis and its impact on specific faith communities. Boaz Ordman, student from Rabbaney Bet Hillel, considered decisions by the Orthodox-Jewish establishment in Israel that prohibited synagogue attendance in an effort “to find the balance between the routine of life and dealing with this pandemic.” Ordman suggested Jewish law and religious reasoning ultimately influenced these closures, as “saving life supersedes shabbat.”

Imam Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini (CO.RE.IS) offered a more critical reflection on this “balance,” particularly surrounding the closing of Mecca. He underscored how “Worldwide, Muslim institutions” affirmed that “health is a priority, not only for ourselves and our communities, but also for humanity,” but that “religious authorities and believers need to somehow frame the balance between priorities [. . .]—we have to stress [health] and the emergency at the global level, but we cannot somehow forget our religious duties.”

Throughout the discussions, seminar participants aptly made connections to social justice issues, highlighting how the pandemic exposed and made more prevalent social injustices as well as how religion was and is instrumental in advancing movements like Black Lives Matter to address them.

Despite all these challenges, Carol Bakhos, Professor of Late Antique Judaism and Jewish Studies at UCLA, suggested that religion’s purpose might not be so different now: “what we see religion offering in a time of crisis is actually what religion always offers [. . .]—a sense of comfort, stability, belonging, and hope.”

If you would like to view recordings of the seminar sessions, please click here. To learn more about INIRE and the Religions and Public Life Initiative, please visit the Religions and Public Life website.