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Faiths ‘forced’ to obey Covid rules, Pew research finds

16 December 2022

Study shows restrictions on worship were harshly enforced


Protesters and riot police clash during the attempted procession of the Rato Machindranath chariot (honouring the Vajrayani Buddhism deity of compassion) in Lalitpur, Nepal, during the thick of the pandemic, in September 2020. Officers blockedparticipants with water cannons and tear gas

Protesters and riot police clash during the attempted procession of the Rato Machindranath chariot (honouring the Vajrayani Buddhism deity of compassi...

GOVERNMENTS used force to make religious groups comply with Covid-19 restrictions in one quarter of countries around the world during the pandemic, a new study has found.

The Pew Research Center study analysed restrictions imposed on religious groups in the year 2019 to 2020 in 198 countries, and found that those who disobeyed worship restrictions were subjected to physical force, including arrests and assaults. The study did not include in these figures countries that only enforced restrictions with fines.

“In nearly a quarter of countries, governments used physical force, such as arrests and raids, to make religious groups comply with Covid-19 public health measures,” the Pew study said.

The report suggests that at least one type of force was used against religious groups in at least 46 countries or territories. The use of force resulted in “detentions” in at least 40 countries or territories, “physical assault” in 11, “property damage, confiscation or raids” in ten, “displacements” in four, and “deaths” in three.

In Comoros, Gabon, and Nepal, police used tear gas to disperse religious gatherings, and in the United States, police arrested people at a rabbi’s funeral. In India, two Christians died in police custody after being accused of violating Covid-19 curfews, and in Montenegro, police arrested several Serbian Orthodox clergy on charges that they had violated restrictions on outdoor public gatherings.

In one third of countries, religious groups defied restrictions to meet together for worship, including in Canada and the US. Religious groups in 54 countries also criticised public health measures as a violation of their religious freedom, and many argued that they were targeted unfairly when compared with shops, restaurants, and other businesses.

In Belgium, a group of Roman Catholics asked the Council of State to nullify the suspension of religious gatherings, saying that it was unfair that people were able to go to shops but not to mass. In Sri Lanka, Muslims objected to mandatory cremations of those who had died from the virus, saying it violated the religious rights of the deceased and their relatives to have an Islamic burial.

Religious groups were also blamed for the spread of the virus in some regions. In 23 countries, comments targeted Jewish communities, including in France, where social media posts caricatured a former Jewish health minister poisoning a well; and, in the UK, where online conspiracy theories claimed that Jews were in control of the global lockdowns.

In 15 countries, Muslims were targeted; in India, hashtags such as #CoronaJihad circulated on social media, and, in Cambodia, Muslims reported facing widespread suspicion and discrimination after the government singled out Muslims by including a “Khmer Islam” category in its statistics on infection rates.

In nine countries, Christian groups were accused of spreading the virus. In Turkey, there was an arson attack on an Armenian church, with the perpetrator allegedly telling police that he had targeted the church because he believed Armenian Christians had brought the virus to Turkey.

In many countries, religious groups helped to promote public health measures, including social distancing and other restrictions which affected their own worship. This was the case in the UK, but also Albania, where religious leaders cancelled gatherings and promoted the government health measures. There were estimated to be collaborative efforts between governments and faith groups in 55 countries, including many in sub Saharan Africa, the study noted.

The study found that, overall, global levels of government restrictions on religion remained largely the same as the previous year’s figures, with 57 countries recording either high or very high levels of government restrictions. This remains the highest figure recorded since 2007.

The number of countries recording high or very high levels of social hostilities against religious groups — classified as violence and harassment by individuals or groups — fell slightly to 40 countries, however, from 65 in 2012. Afghanistan topped the list of countries with the highest government restriction and highest levels of social hostilities. Algeria ranked second for government restrictions, and Egypt second for social hostilities.

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