COVID-19 Op-ed

COVID-19 and the Right to Freedom of Religion and Belief

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Eugene YappSenior Fellow,
Religious Freedom Institute
South and South East Asia
30 March 2020

A great concern in connection with the spread
of the Corona virus/COVID-19 in many parts of the world, particularly in
Malaysia  arose from the large-scale gathering of people in connection
with religious events .On 26 March, Malaysian national health
director-general, Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah announced that five groupings of
people infected with  Covid-19  from the Seri Petaling tabligh gathering
 had been detected. This state of affairs present a significant
challenge to the state and federal health authorities as it seeks to contain
the virus from further spread.The occasion for this unfortunate circumstance
arose from a religious gathering during the Tabligh Jammat event held at
Masjid Jamek Sri Petaling  in Malaysia from February 27 to March 3.
According to health authorities, the gathering attracted some 16,000
participants. More than 711 index cases of people infected with Covid-19
 were subsequently identified, who have then infected families,
neighbours and friends.At the same time, on March 8, it a large-scale Hindu
festival took place in Teluk Bahang in conjunction with the Masi Magam Theppa
Thirunal (Floating Chariot Festival) at the Sri Singamuga Kaliamman Temple.
The celebration saw more than 30,000 people thronging the temple to take part
in prayer sessions and other religious rituals. Fortunately, Penang state
authorities reported that there has been no cases of Covid-19 infection
detected among the people who attended the event.Outside Malaysia, concerns
have also arisen from other religious gatherings in the region, namely, the
tabligh gathering at Sulawesi which was subsequently called off and the secretive
gathering of the exclusive  sect called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus
where thousands of the church’s followers and people were tested
these Gatherings go on during Covid-19?
There are
many reasons why  religious adherence go to such length to fulfil their
religious obligations in the face of risks to health and life. One reason
could well be what Malaysian  Deputy Minister of Women and Family
Development, Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff said in twitter,  “The likelihood
of dying from the Coronavirus is only 1%, while the possibility of dying at
any moment is 100%. Let’s renew our faith and fear God, truly death
is real and it comes unexpectedly
.” (emphasis added).Faith and
fear of God often compels people to act in ways that could easily be
misunderstood.  While believers of all faith traditions and beliefs
choose to place their hopes and trust in the divine for protection and
deliverance, it should be borne in mind religion is never dualistic in the
sense of “me and my God”. There is always the “other”. True faith and piety
can never be unless we love and consider the other in our midst.  This
is where the right to freedom of religion and belief becomes important, for
religious freedom is as much a right for one’s own expression of faith as it
is for the consideration of others’ welfare and rights.Are there limits to
Religious Freedom?
International norms have never
denied the right to freedom of religion and belief is deeply rooted in faith,
universal in nature and appears capricious. But like all other rights, it is
not absolute. In exceptional circumstances, it may be limited or restricted.
Religious freedom scholar, Paul Marshall helps us to understand what
religious freedom really is,

Religious freedom normatively as a freedom that, like all
freedoms, is inherently subject to many restrictions—such as others’ rights
to life or health. Here religious freedom is defined as a freedom that is,
like all others, necessarily restricted by other freedoms, and also by the
duties that we all must follow. This is similar to the position taken in
Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ……..
An alternative is to define religious freedom in very broad terms without
including any possible restrictions in the definition. But we could then add
that religious freedom may legitimately be restricted in certain
circumstances but that we need to call a spade a spade and call these
restrictions what they are: actual (if justifiable) limits on religious

As Marshall notes, if religious freedom is to be limited or
restricted, it  must never be employed arbitrarily, for example, to
target a particular religion or religious community. It must be preceded with
overwhelming evidence available to all, that public health would be severely
endangered and harm to the public is likely. And before undertaking any
limitation or restrictions,  consultation must be held with all
stakeholders to ensure that the act of limitation or restrictions  is
desirable and proportionate to the aim of the limitation or restrictions.A
 decree to limit or restrict religious freedom must also be clear and
transparent as to its scope, must be time-limited and with clear indication
when the decree will end or likely end. The presumption is in favour of
religious freedom for all people anytime anywhere unless clear evidence to
show widespread community transmission would endanger life. The onus or
burden, is for states to justify on grounds of legitimacy the limitation or
restrictions on public gatherings for worship and occasion for religious
festivals.More often than not, there may be an instance when the government’s
restriction is justified. However, when the situation change, authorities may
be slow to act to delimit or remove those restrictions. A clear frame of
reference as we have expressed is therefore necessary to avoid the confusion
of the rights of believers with faith itself and to ensure the state does not
end up usurping the role and dictating to religious institutions what it can
or cannot do. This is in order for human rights to be always upheld even in
the midst of a pandemic affecting a democratic polity.References:Hong,
Bebe, 2020. Health Ministry Wants to Halt Tabligh Cluster Spread at 5th
Generation. The Malaysian Insight,  26 March. Available at: <>
Audrey, 2020. No Report of Covid-19 Cases Among Penang Chariot Fest
Attendees. New Straits Times,  24 March. Available at: <>.
FMT Reporters, 2020. Deputy Minister Closes Twitter Account After Uproar over
Covid-19 Post. FMT News
16 March. Avaialble at: <>.
Marshall, Paul, 2020. Do Government Restrictions on Larger Church Gathering
Violate Religious Freedom? Providence,  27 March. Available at: <>.

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