Smiling, seemingly relaxed, he comes to greet me in the small and sunny patio. In a brief moment, we both hesitate whether it will be a “fist-greeting” or a handshake. “Roberto” (a pseudonym), I have been told in advance, used to be a feared leader, high up in the hierarchy of one of the terrifyingly powerful gangs of El Salvador. I was also told that he had been to jail for 10 years. There, he had met Wilfredo Gómez, once a gang member but now a converted evangelical Christian and pastor of a small congregation. Well, more than a congregation, in fact. Made up by ex-pandilleros like himself, Pastor Will’s congregation Huellas de Esperanza (Traces of Hope) provides assistance to and space for those who would follow his trajectory: to break with gang life and seek reintegration into a civil, law-abiding, and peaceful life.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath have shone a new light on gender-based violence (GBV). This global issue has distinctive facets in Bangladesh, where GBV is a long-standing challenge that stands in marked contrast to impressive progress towards gender equality. The COVID-19 emergencies have made the problems more visible, with worrying indicators of rising domestic abuse and more child marriages. A specialist at BRAC Human Rights and Legal Aid Services noted in late summer 2020 that human rights violations had increased by 128% in the two months following the start of the pandemic. An important and often understated factor is the roles played by faith actors, both positive and far less so. Religious beliefs and teachings are always a significant factor in patriarchal customs. Emerging from the COVID-19 shadow there is both a need and a potential to view the problems with fresh eyes and renewed dialogue in order to address negative facets that condone GBV and to advance positive collaboration.
In Southeast Asia, April 21 is celebrated as Kartini Day, honoring a nineteenth century Indonesian leader who was ahead of her time in her strong advocacy for women’s equality and above all education for girls. In 2016 Google honored her with a Google Doodle. Her ideals, which drew on both religious and non-religious sources, are reflected today in many noble strategies and programs aimed at gender equality, but many of the challenges of her time are still before us.
Religious traditions have both formed and thrived from expressions of emergent agency (i.e., people responding to crises by organizing at local levels) throughout history. It was clear that the Emergent Agency project (a COVID-19 focused effort from the London School of Economics/Oxfam) should examine how faith actors had responded to COVID-19. Faith actors have embodied some of the broader characteristics of emergent agency, such as quick adaptations of existing structures or new formations of faith groups, to respond to COVID-19 around the world. Remarkably rapid learning curves on digital space is another pivot. From the beginning, the Faith Working Group that took part in the Emergent Agency project was particularly interested in emerging agency from local faith actors, more than large-scale religious entities (like the Vatican) or international faith-based organizations (like World Vision). We were anecdotally aware of many immediate, adaptive responses from faith actors to COVID-19, but we were similarly aware that specific evidence on these efforts was scattered and sparse. We decided, therefore, to bring forward cases that could shed light on forms of emergent agency from local faith actors.
The persecution of Taghlibi Jamaat members amid the rise of the “CoronaJihad” hashtag on social media showcased how India’s religious harmony hung by a knife's edge at the height of the nation's COVID-19 crisis. The missionary organization held a large gathering in Delhi upon approval by the authorities in mid-March 2020. A few weeks later, it was discovered that the gathering had led to the spread of COVID-19 among its members, which later swept through many Indian states. While it was a cluster, the proportion of infections within the community to those across the country was miniscule. However, virus testing across India became disproportionately targeted to Taghibli Jamaat members, and results were being used by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokespeople to uphold a narrative the Muslims were planning to infect millions as part of a “Talibani crime,” and that the individuals carrying the virus were “human bombs.”
Disrupted progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the broad commitments of all nations to achieving them have prompted deep and shared concerns. Amidst the urgent challenges and uncertainties that the COVID-19 emergencies have caused, momentum, focus, and financial progress are at grave risk.
While the Italian Presidency of the 2021 G20 did not highlight conflict and peacebuilding on their agenda, the G20 Interfaith Forum saw little leeway to avoid the topic as it focused on the central theme of healing. A discussion on September 13th thus explored links between the global COVID-19 crises and conflict as well as the work of peacebuilding.
Divergent paths and inequalities are a stark reality that mark the COVID-19 era. The global emergencies affect different individuals very differently. Everyone shares in uncertainties, well aware of deaths, illness, and economic disruptions, but some have actually seen their wealth increase and savored time for reflection and new ventures. For others, however, grief, hunger, and disrupted relationships dominate life. The situation for nations also ranges widely. All face setbacks and need to adjust hopes and plans, but many are looking catastrophe in the face, with decades of progress wiped out.
The many tentacles of the COVID-19 pandemic dominate current global agendas: economic, social, political, and far beyond. Health care, however, is at the center, with urgent, immediate demands both for COVID-19 prevention and care and a sharply increased focus on demands for reform of systems at global, national, and local levels. And a strong argument can be made that without the full engagement and partnership of faith communities, universal health coverage will never be achieved.
Religious Responses to COVID-19 Project Tracks, Shares Resources on Faith Engagement in Global Pandemic
The Religious Responses to COVID-19 project—a collaboration between the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI), and the World Faiths Development Dialogue—will hit its two year anniversary in just five months. It originated from a rapidly mobilized consultation on faith dimensions of the pandemic that convened at the Berkley Center, hours before Georgetown University shifted to virtual operation on March 11, 2020. The consultation led to the creation of the Faith and COVID-19: Resource Repository and daily email digests that archived and communicated faith-related COVID-19 news sources. It is primarily managed by a team of four people who work on the project in addition to their full-time positions. The repository has now grown to over 150 pages of sources and inspired many virtual events and publications. Currently, updates from the repository are shared via a weekly digest sent to over 800 subscribers that has been cited by Devex, the UN Environment Programme, and USAID.