Is coronavirus hampering religious freedom rights worldwide? USCIRF explains

A Chinese health worker checks the temperature of a woman entering a subway station during the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival on January 25, 2020, in Beijing, China.
A Chinese health worker checks the temperature of a woman entering a subway station during the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival on January 25, 2020, in Beijing, China. | Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is calling on world governments to account for religious freedom in their responses to the coronavirus outbreak, citing concerns with some government and societal responses to the crisis. 

“From a legal perspective, international law requires governments to preserve individual human rights, including religious freedom, when taking measures to protect public health even in times of crisis,” reads a factsheet written by USCIRF policy analysts Scott Wiener and Dominic Nardi and USCIRF International Legal Specialist Kirsten Lavery.

The factsheet, published Monday by the bipartisan federal commission, reviews the international legal framework “surrounding the limitation of religious freedom on the grounds of public health.” 

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The document provides examples from the current pandemic where religious freedom issues and public health interventions have overlapped.

The factsheet comes as there have been over 204,000 reported COVID-19 cases and over 8,200 deaths worldwide since December, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine coronavirus resource center

According to USCIRF, South Korea “provides a vivid example of how public health emergencies can increase the risk to marginalized religious groups.”

USCIRF reports that members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect that many see as a cult and claims to have over 300,000 members worldwide, have faced “considerable criticism and even harassment from the South Korean government and society.” 

It all began after a 61-year-old member of the church developed a fever and attended services in Deagu before being diagnosed with coronavirus. 

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about two-thirds of cases could be traced to the church member as a surge of infections broke out among Shincheonji members.

USCIRF notes that Shincheonji Church has faced pressure from mainline Protestant groups in South Korea. 

“Although some government measures appeared to be driven by legitimate public health concerns, others appeared to exaggerate the church’s role in the outbreak,” USCIRF stressed. “The government of Seoul locked down Shincheonji churches in the capital, and some mainline Protestant groups have accused the church of deliberately spreading the disease.”

Also, local prosecutors are investigating criminal charges of homicide by willful negligence against the church’s founder, Lee Man-hee.

“USCIRF has received reports of individuals encountering discrimination at work and spousal abuse because of their affiliation with the church,” the document explains. 

According to USCIRF, a petition to ban the church has received more than 1.2 million signatures even though the vice minister of health has stated that Shincheonji Church leaders have cooperated with authorities.

In China, where the first case of the virus was reported in early December, the government received pushback over its slow response to the outbreak and censoring of information. As of today, there have been over 80,000 reported cases in China with over 3,000 deaths. 

The communist government has “imposed strict quarantine measures” such as locking down Wuhan and four other cities. According to USCIRF, the Chinese government has also used “its surveillance apparatus to monitor potentially sick citizens.”

“Human rights advocates are concerned that COVID-19 — and the government’s response — risk exacerbating ongoing religious freedom violations,” the report reads. 

China is ranked as one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to persecution of Christians on Open Doors USA’s World Watch List. The communist government has been known to persecute and monitor members of various religious minorities, including the detention of over 1 million Uighur and other Muslims in western China over the last three years.

USCIRF voiced concern with reports that authorities in China are forcing Uighurs to work in factories throughout the country to “compensate for decreased output during the quarantine.”

USCIRF fears that the combination of limited access to medical resources and the large concentration of elderly people in China’s “education” camps could create a humanitarian disaster if the virus were to reach any of the camps.

Additionally, Chinese authorities have quarantined millions of people across the Xinjiang province without warning in January. 

“There are reports that some Uighur residents in the city of Ghulja have limited access to food and local officials have demanded payments in order to bring supplies,” USCIRF notes. 

With over 31,500 cases, Italy has seen the worst outbreak of COVID-19 outside Asia. This has led the Italian government to issue a quarantine of impacted regions as well close schools, theaters and other public gatherings. 

The quarantine also includes religious services. 

“In compliance with those regulations, several Italian dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church canceled public Masses and suspended Ash Wednesday services,” USCIRF notes. “Around the northern city of Milan, worshipers are only allowed to visit churches for private prayer and cannot sit together in large groups.”

According to USCIRF, some religious leaders have questioned the decision to ban church services. The New York Times reports that the Roman Catholic Patriarch of Venice Francesco Moraglia said that he would ask the regional government of Veneto to allow the celebration of mass.

He told the newspaper that without communion, “we cannot live.” 

The Vatican on March 8 suspended all public masses and celebrations until the beginning of April. 

With over 17,300 reported cases in the Islamic Republic of Iran, some countries in the Middle East have imposed travel restrictions to the country, impacting the ability of Shia Muslim pilgrims to visit religious sites in Iran such as the Qom and Mashhad seminaries. 

Also, the debate over whether to close religious sites in Iran has led to viral videos of people licking and kissing the shrines in defiance. At least two men were arrested in recent weeks for licking the shrines and could face prison time as well as flogging, according to the BBC

USCIRF is also concerned for the health of hundreds of religious minority prisoners of conscience as the coronavirus has spread to prisons in Evin, Urmia and Ghazalhesar, 

“On March 3, Iran announced it would release 54,000 prisoners on furlough, and it later released a total of 70,000,” USCIRF reports. “However, 16 Sufi prisoners at Great Tehran Penitentiary reportedly were moved to a ward with known cases of COVID-19, and eight Sufis from Evin prison were moved to the same ward within GTP. Additionally, eight Sufis in Ghazalhasar Prison were moved to an overcrowded ward at that prison where they are at an increased risk of contracting the virus.”

In Saudia Arabia, there are 171 cases of coronavirus reported as of Wednesday morning. 

The kingdom took preemptive measures by banning foreigners from traveling to the pilgrimage cities of Mecca and Medina. The Saudi government established an online portal for those who paid for pilgrimage visas to get a refund. 

On March 8, Saudia Arabia suspended entry and exit from the predominantly Shia Qatif province, where the first 11 cases of coronavirus were reported in the country. 

“[T]he Saudi government contends that individuals traveling from Iran, which has experienced a high number of cases, may have brought the virus back with them,” the USCIRF report reads. “Iran is home to several Shia religious pilgrimage sites, so the quarantine around Qatif stands to limit this particular element of Shia religious practice.”

With over 113 cases of coronavirus as of Wednesday morning, USCIRF warns that the United Arab Emirates has “used state authority to restrict religious gatherings.”

“The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments in Sharjah directed churches to suspend children’s Bible classes and ban children from all church activities,” USCIRF reports. “It also banned religious lectures and sermons, but allowed individual prayers.”

The UAE government has also introduced a 15-minute limit on Friday prayer in mosques and cut short weekday prayers as well.

The governmental Shari’a Ifta Council issued a fatwa this month banning people who feel unwell from attending prayers. 

“The Ministry of Health and Prevention also suspended classes at Quran learning centers to clean the buildings and ordered mosques to do so as well,” USCIRF reports. “Hindu temples restricted ceremonial events and canceled Holi celebrations in early March, and the Sikh community installed thermal scanners at the Gurunanak Darbar in Jebel Ali and increased sanitation measures there.”

Other countries included in USCIRF’s factsheet include Tajikistan, where the government has taken preemptive measures to limit the spread of COVID-19; and Georgia, where 83 percent of the population is part of the Georgian Orthodox Church and use a shared spoon to conduct communion rituals. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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