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How faith communities are dealing with discrimination during COVID-19

As we’ve reported before, people of Asian descent have been the targets of COVID-19-related harrassment and discrimination since the beginning of the pandemic. But COVID-19 has also highlighted existing prejudices against other groups, with Jewish and Muslim communities reporting an uptick in harassment, mistreatment, and the spread of disinformation about them in recent months. 

In Montreal, Hasidic Jewish communities have spoken out against being unfairly scrutinized after several people made false reports to the police claiming to have witnessed community members congregating in synagogues and other indoor spaces. At a recent anti-lockdown demonstration in Columbus, Ohio, a protestor held up an anti-Semitic sign with the words “The real plague” next to an image of a rat and the Star of David. In France, a candidate for the far-right National Rally party had his party support revoked after liking a video shared on the social media website VK, promoting an anti-Semitic COVID-19 conspiracy theory. 

The United Nations has reported an “alarming rise” in anti-Semitic hate speech during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is imperative for the civil society organisations and faith-based actors to signal a zero-tolerance policy towards antisemitism online and offline,” said Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Incidences of Islamophobia have also grown, including in India, where the term “Corona Jihad” was reportedly trending on Twitter just weeks after religious riots in New Delhi killed fifty-three people. In the U.K., far-right extremists have been sharing false and misleading images of Muslims, who they claim are flouting physical distancing rules. And in Thunder Bay, Ont., the husband and son of a doctor who is treating COVID-19 patients were verbally attacked while shopping at a grocery store. 

“Even as Canadian Muslims die from COVID-19, we worry about how the entire Muslim community could face castigation in the case that even a single Muslim breaches quarantine,” writes Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, in a recent Edmonton Journal op-ed.

In the face of increasing hostility, these communities have also been forced to alter some of their religious practices as lockdown measures remain in effect. 

During recent Passover celebrations in early April, instead of gathering together around a table, many Jewish families celebrated their traditional Seder dinners digitally, using video-conferencing apps. 

Some celebrants adapted elements of the Seder to reflect the current times, like choosing to complete the ritual washing of hands — often done symbolically — to be done for real, as an acknowledgment of current public health guidelines. Other elements of the Passover experience also had a special resonance; gathering to remember the ten plagues that led to the exodus of Jewish people from Egypt while a different kind of “plague” looms made this year’s celebration stand out from those past. 

Now, in the midst of Ramadan, Muslims are trying to navigate new restrictions that are affecting their daily fasts and upcoming Eid celebrations. 

“Islam as a religion is a very communal faith, and Ramadan is kind of the zenith of that communal spirit,” says Safiah Chowdhury, a 31-one-year-old Muslim woman living in Toronto who is active in her faith community. “With the orders for physical distancing and the closure of our mosques at this time, it inhibits a lot of the community spirit that typically is replete during Ramadan. It’s changed significantly,” she says. 

These difficulties are coming at a time when celebrations like Ramadan are most needed. Studies have shown that religious practices across faiths can increase overall happiness. A 2010 Gallup poll found that, out of a sample size of over 675,000 Americans, those who identified as “very religious” (about 41 per cent of the population) had higher rates of emotional health, healthy behaviours, and overall well-being at that time. But with the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated shutdowns, the ability to lean on one’s faith community for support is greatly diminished. 

“The digital way of gathering is okay, but it’s no replacement for being around hundreds of community members all in their Eid best,” says Chowdhury. She adds that there have been efforts to find digital workarounds — like celebrating iftar (the nightly breaking of the fast) over video, and offering religious programming online — with some positive effects. “None of this really replaces actual prayer, but it does provide a lot of knowledge, insight, and reflection,” she says.   

Even with physical distancing measures in place, some cities have been stepping up to accommodate religious celebrations in new ways. For the first time, the City of Toronto is allowing the Islamic call to prayer to be broadcast from local mosques. Normally, amplified sounds are prohibited by the city’s municipal code but officials have agreed to make an exception, acknowledging the difficulties the city’s Muslims are facing during the pandemic. “Spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being is important during these difficult times,” Tammy Robinson, a city spokesperson, told the CBC.

Similar to the nightly 7:30 p.m. applause in support of health-care workers, Toronto’s call to prayer exception is meant to signal a sense of community with Muslims quarantined in their homes and separated from family and friends. Chowdhury, for her part, says measures like these provide a bit of solace during an otherwise difficult time. “If you’re in the vicinity and you’re able to hear it, it’s just really calming and reaffirming,” she says. “It’s been one of the nice things about Ramadan in isolation.”