“God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble…’I will be honoured by every nation. I will be honoured throughout the world’” (Psalm 46).
How will He help us if we do not turn to Him? Where is the honour when in some places, places of worships have remained under locks and keys, while motor parks, businesses and other public places have long reopened?
It is very sad to know that in Nigeria, and some parts of Africa, religious leaders and places of worships become important only during electioneering periods, and not in times of national crisis like plague or pandemic. This is contrary to the realities of ancient past.
During the infamous black plague of 1347-1352, Joshua J. Mark in the article “Religious Responses to the Black Death,” argues that even though Christians and Muslims differed in their opinions on the plague, both religious groups gathered for prayers, and sought the face of God. In Christianity, there were “Penitential processions, attending Mass, fasting, ….” And in Islam, there were, equally,”Prayer and supplication at mosques, processions, mass funerals, orations, fasting” (“Religious Responses to the Black Death,” by Joshua J Mark, April 16th, 2020).
The terrible Spanish flu of 1918 that claimed the lives of over 50million people worldwide, also saw a similar approach. Although there were debates regarding the closing of places of worships, which actually occurred in many places, but no public place was rated above the other. Over time, all closed places were opened including religious places.
Towards the end of 1918, two neo-Calvinist members of the Groningen city council requested the government authority to keep local churches open. According to them, “physical contagion” should not go at the expense of “spiritual infection,” against which the churches served as a “prophylactic”(“Coping with Covid-19 in Dutch Christianity: A Comparison with the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic (Part One),” by Religion Father, April 20th, 2020).
In their argument, both church and state are subjects to God’s Word. Consequently, in each internal affairs, the other should not interfere. On that stance, “Abraham Kuyper argued that any political restrictions on ecclesial activities went against God’s order and infringed upon freedom of conscience. Under extreme circumstances, civil governments could advocate such restrictions, but church councils should always have the final say” (Religion Father, April 20th, 2020).
Religious groups also joined in the battle to bring under control the raging flu of 1918. Nancy Frazier O’Brien wrote recently, that, “Throughout the United States, thousands of women religious took on nursing duties in hospitals or clinics and went into private homes to offer food, medicine, comfort and even housecleaning to families affected by the Spanish flu” (“Religious sisters’ work during 1918 Spanish flu seen as model for crisis today,” by Catholic News Service, March 31st, 2020).
These, and many more, were instances of the roles religious groups played during the two infamous pandemics prior to corona virus outbreaks.
No doubt, religious groups have equally played significant roles in the fight against corona virus pandemic in nearly everywhere around the world.
In Nigeria, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), at the wake of the outbreak, made all Catholic medical facilities available and accessible to governments. But for reasons best known to the governments, they refused to make use of those facilities. And instead are spending billions of naira awarding contracts for tent facilities. Besides that gracious contribution, the Catholic “Pax Herbal Clinic and Research Laboratories” went into serious research and came up with CVD PLUS experimental herbal medicine, which sadly, has remained an object of controversy.
In Cameroon, Archbishop Samuel Kleda of Douala Archdiocese, has contributed immensely through his medicinal plants, in the fight against the deadly disease.
Besides the Catholic Church, other Christian denominations have equally played their unique roles in the fight against the pandemic. In addition, tremendous charity works through palliative to the less privileged in society have equally been shown by various religious groups.
It is equally important to commend governments of many countries around the world, championed by president Donald Trump of the United States of America (USA) on the call to reopen religious houses. This is a proof that beyond social beings, we are most importantly, religious beings. However, the actions of these governments have witnessed a lot of resistances, and some critiques have even seen their moves as political strategies.
How has private worships become alternative, when members of these religious groups still live their normal lives outside their homes, except to congregate together?
No doubt, in the words of Archbishop Adewale Martins, “Worshipers will be safer in Church premises than in other public places such as markets and motor parks.” Consequently, suspending the planned reopening of Churches for public worship in Lagos State, has left every concern religious person with a feeling of utter disappointment and bewilderment.
What these governments are doing to the places of worships, is in my view playing God. It is downplaying spiritual roles, to the advantage of social life. It is a continuous violation of the freedom of worships, and association. Yet, during electioneering campaigns, religion becomes the “opium of the masses.”
If it were election season, those states would have long reopened places of worships, because they need the religious leaders to become partisans in order to advance their selfish interests.
Let us hope that when the storm of this pandemic is over, religious leaders would have learned their lessons. We hope that they would stop playing into the hands of our desperate politicians who use them to advance their selfish interests, and thereafter place them on locks and keys.
In Nigeria, despite the federal government gradual phases of ease of lockdown, which has allowed religious houses to gradually reopen, while maintaining the necessary guidelines. Governments of some states, have remained obstinate in implementing it.
Their action is disappointing. Very disappointing in a country that pride herself as one of the most religious in the world.
No doubt, Lagos state is the most populous state in West Africa, far above some countries in Africa and around the world. It is equally the epicenter of the pandemic in Nigeria. But, it has long allowed markets and businesses to reopen, including motor parks. But has perpetually placed places of worships under locks and keys.
Businesses, and motor parks are allowed operating, without social distancing. The “push me, I push you” common in most markets have returned to normal. The survival of the fittest whenever one attempts to board a commercial vehicle, have returned to normal.
Many Lagosians work freely in their numbers in the streets of Lagos, and many do not even believe that corona virus exist.
Domestic airlines have upon the reopening of local flights, allowed their passengers to board without any form of social distancing as soon as they enter the planes.
Politicians still gather in their numbers, both in the parliaments, and in the executives. Yet, worship centers where rules and regulations are easily obeyed, are still on lockdown.
Where is the spiritual dimension to this war against corona virus?
Finally, in the words of John Cardinal Onaiyekan, which I do strongly believe, “Mosques and churches deserve more special consideration than the above mentioned.”
Please stop playing God. Open up places of worships, and let us cry to God our Supreme Healer. He may afflict us, but He is also our Healer (cf. Job 5:28).
July 30th, 2020
Israel GodsPower ANAWEOKHAI is a Catholic Priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He is currently on mission in the Archdiocese of Douala, Cameroon.
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