This op-ed originally appeared in the Arkansas Gazette on Saturday, March 28, 2020.
By Gayle Manchin and James W. Carr
How far can a government limit religious freedom in the name of fighting the coronavirus (COVID-19)? As the global pandemic continues, many national and local governments are grappling with this question. Religious gatherings are important opportunities for people to practice and share their beliefs, but they are also sites for transmission of COVID-19, endangering not only participants in these gatherings but everyone with whom they interact. Crises require decisive government action, but governments often use times of crisis to encroach on individual freedoms or target minority groups long after the crisis has passed.
As commissioners on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), we have also had to figure out how to advance our mission to monitor and promote freedom of religion and belief around the world while recognizing the pressing public health needs. Fortunately, as we document in a new factsheet, international human rights standards offer some guidance.
Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees freedom of religion, but also allows governments to narrowly restrict religious freedom by law when necessary to protect public health. Freedom of religion is not absolute, but it also cannot be limited disproportionately, or in a way that discriminates against believers and non-believers of a certain religion or belief. Public health emergencies should also not be used to target or stigmatize certain religious groups. Unlike other rights, religious freedom cannot be suspended in times of public emergency, which means that governments must balance this fundamental right in efforts to combat the impact of the virus.
Compliance with international law not only protects human rights, but also should ultimately create more effective implementation of public health measures to slow COVID-19. Many governments have asked religious groups to voluntarily take measures that limit the spread of COVID-19, including cancelling services, disinfecting houses of worship, and limiting the length of prayer times. These requests utilize a cooperative approach in which governments treat religious groups as partners rather than potential threats. As such, we expect wider implementation and stronger individual adherence to these public health measures.
Across the globe, religious authorities are limiting gatherings in response to COVID-19. On March 5, Saudi Arabia closed the Grand Mosque in Mecca for disinfecting, and reopened it nine days later with restrictions. The Vatican suspended public masses on March 8 and has begun livestreaming the Pope’s general audience. The United Arab Emirates has prohibited children from attending church activities and limited Friday prayer times in mosques to 15 minutes. Tajikistan’s semi-official Council of Ulema issued a fatwa calling on clergy to close mosques and cancelled public celebrations of the Nowruz holiday.
In other countries, existing limitations on freedom of religion might be exacerbated during the response to COVID-19. In China, where the outbreak originated, the Communist Party’s ongoing detention of more than one million Uighurs and other Muslims in concentration camps creates conditions for a rapid spread of the virus should it enter these sites. The Iranian government has released 70,000 prisoners on furlough to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but has reportedly placed prisoners who are part of the Sufi religious minority in wards that are overcrowded, increasing their risk. And, although the South Korean government’s response has generally drawn praise for balancing rights and public health, there are worrying signs that some local authorities are scapegoating a small religious sect known as the Shincheonji church because some of its members were infected.
The United States has an important role to play in monitoring how the international community balances freedom of religion with public health concerns, even as the COVID-19 pandemic reaches our own shores. Americans cannot allow fear to override our values. We must not wash our hands of our responsibilities as the world’s leading champion of international religious freedom. When governments use public health as a mask for persecuting religious communities, the United States must use its uniquely loud voice to sound the alarm.