Coronavirus and Religion update – 23 April

By Tim Wyatt

Ramadan under lockdown

As the first day of the holy Islamic month of fasting begins, debate has surged about how to adapt the tradition to the current coronavirus crisis. Some observers have suggested taking it easier than usual, with the elderly and ill choosing not to fast for fear of imposing an even greater burden on the NHS or making themselves more susceptible to Covid-19.

The actor Adil Ray told the BBC’s Today programme he was trying to persuade his 81-year-old father not to fast, but was finding it difficult. There have long been exemptions in Islamic teaching for those unable to fast because of old age or sickness, who are instead urged to mark Ramadan by giving food to the poor.

Leading figures in the British Muslim community have combined to urge the faithful to mark Ramadan by staying at home, rather than holding the normal large iftar end of the day meals with friends and family. In a video posted on social media under the hashtag #RamadanAtHome, Muslim celebrities including the actor Riz Ahmed, the TV present Konnie Huq and the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan say they will be staying at home for the next month.

Adil Ray has also produced a video with fellow Muslim actors, for fear that the government’s messaging on the lockdown — and in particular how to shield vulnerable groups such as the elderly or those with underlying health conditions — is not reaching some ethnic minority communities. Some evidence suggests those from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to suffer severe cases of the coronavirus

Around the world, many Muslim-majority nations have taken unprecedented steps during Ramadan to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Indonesia has banned an annual homecoming festival which sees millions of people travel to their families in time for Eid-al-Fitr, which marks the end of the month of fasting. All of Islam’s holiest sites, including those in Mecca and Medina, are closed to worshippers during what is often their busiest period of the year.

But in some places there has been resistance. The Al-Azhar mosque in Egypt, one of the most-respected religious authorities in Sunni Islam, announced lasted week the pandemic was not an excuse not to take part in fasting, while in Afghanistan one hardline cleric has ruled dying from Covid-19 amounts to martyrdom and has continued holding large prayer services with hundreds of worshippers. The Pakistani government has rolled back restrictions which banned public prayers at mosques after a fierce backlash from leading imams, and now Muslims will be permitted to attend Ramadan services as long as they stay two meters apart and wear face masks.

Jewish Chronicle reborn

The Jewish Chronicle, the oldest continuously-published Jewish newspaper in the world, has been sold to new owners, ending a complex ownership battle after the outlet went into liquidation earlier this month.

The JC, as it is widely known, announced on 8 April – hours before the Jewish festival of Passover began – that it had run out of money and would be liquidated. The Jewish News, a rival title with which the Chronicle had been in the process of merging, made a similar announcement.

But days later, the Chronicle’s owner, the Kessler Foundation, submitted a bid to re-acquire both papers from the liquidators and press ahead with the merger, although the editor of the Chronicle Stephen Pollard would step aside to a new role as editor-at-large.

Then in a last-minute twist, a rival consortium of businesspeople and public figures, led by Theresa May’s ex-director of communications Sir Robbie Gibb, also put in a bid to buy the title. And today (Thursday 23rd April) it was announced that this rival bid has been successful.

Although little is known about the source of the consortium’s money, the group have said they will transfer the JC into a new charitable trust to ensure its editorial independence. Mr Pollard will also return as editor.

As a result of this development, the merger with the Jewish News has been cancelled, with the News’s old owner taking the newspaper out of liquidation and restarting publication under its editor Richard Ferrer, who had been placed to take over as editor of the merged outlet.

Read the full back story in this Religion Media Centre explainer here:


Livestreaming priests rebel against archbishop

The simmering row within the Church of England over the bishops’ decision to order church buildings shut even to clergy has broken out into the open yet again. Although the government regulations on the lockdown explicitly state ministers of religion can go into places of worship for the purpose of private prayers or to livestream a service over the internet, the C of E hierarchy decided last month that this carried too much risk and told vicars they must stay at home along with the parishioners.

In many other faith groups, religious leaders have continued to go to mosques, synagogues, temples and gurdwaras by themselves to hold acts of worship.

A vocal minority of clerics have pushed back against the C of E decision, with some even refusing to carry out communion services inside their vicarages. Despite the Archbishop of Canterbury Rt Rev Justin Welby releasing a video, filmed from inside his London home, reiterating the rationale behind locking church doors, he was later forced to concede on the Andrew Marr show on Easter Sunday that the pronouncements were not legally binding.

The Revd Marcus Walker, rector of the medieval St Bartholomew the Great church in central London, has been one of the most prominent critics of the bishops. He tweeted that he had consulted church lawyers who confirmed the hierarchy of the Church did not have the power to prevent clergy from fulfilling their own legal duty under ancient canon law to celebrate communion every Sunday in the parish church.

As a result, many of the priests who had criticised the ruling returned to their church buildings on Sunday to broadcast worship services and communion to the faithful cooped up at home. This has in turn prompted other clergy to criticise them for so publicly disregarding the guidance of the bishops, with some high-profile blogs and Facebook pages hosting increasingly bitter public arguments between leading vicars on each side of the divide.