FAITH and prayer alone are not enough to combat the corona virus pandemic, the Pacific Conference of Churches warned today.

And preachers should not claim that COVID-19 is punishment from God nor should they vilify people living with the disease.

PCC General Secretary, Reverend James Bhagwan, said faith and prayers held communities together in hope while science tackled the virus in scientific and practical ways.

“Yet, the easy and simplistic option to turn religion and prayers as the only solution during times of crisis like this is not only problematic but is also risky and reckless,” Bhagwan said.

“Yes, Christians are saved through the gospel of God’s grace. However, this salvation does not mean we escape physical corruption, futility, and death. This pandemic, as others before it, is not condemnation, it is not punitive.”

Here is his his letter to regional church leaders:

Practicing our Christian Faith in the Pacific in the Time of COVID19

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ across the many islands of the Pacific Ocean,

As we in the Pacific face the Novel Corona Virus (COVID19), being the literally the last place on earth to be affected, I have noticed that the actions of some Pacific Islanders, and posts on social media, reflect a Christian perspective that is naïve at the least and dangerous at its most.

In a recent virtual meeting of the General Secretaries of Regional Ecumenical Organisationsi and the World Council of Churches, there was an acknowledgement that the crisis of this global pandemic has allowed misleading and incorrect theologies to develop through which those entrusted with faith leadership have misled their communities, sometimes for their own personal gain or agenda.

Earlier this month, the leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in South Korea, apologised for the group’s role in the spread of the new Coronavirus, as members were believed to have infected one another and then travelled around the country, apparently undetected.ii

We can already see from responses to COVID19 around the world that religious beliefs play a fundamental role in the hygienic practices, from preparation of food to handwashing rituals. However, some claim that their faith alone is a strong enough disinfectant and thereby help to spread the virus.iii

Faith and prayers hold us together in hope and community while science tackles the virus in scientific and practical ways.

Yet, the easy and simplistic option to turn religion and prayers as the only solution during times of crisis like this is not only problematic but is also risky and reckless.

As many have been watching the spread of COVID19 globally, one can also note the different faith responses to the pandemic. In a highly religious region, where between 80-90 per cent of Pacific Islanders identify strongly as Christians, and whose responses in times of political, social and ecological crisis often have diverse religious tones, we can learn from the experience of other regions.

Our churches are learning from the deaths of clergy in countries that did not enforce strict physical distancing measure and confusion on how the church should provide pastoral care at this time. At least 60 priests have died from the COV19 in Italy, many of whom chose to continue to provide pastoral services to their congregations.iv

As sad as this is, it is a reminder that no one is immune from the virus, not even our religious leaders.

In Kenya, for example, a country with a highly educated and exposed population, pandemics like COVID-19 and HIV/AIDs are still said to be caused by the devil and other dark forces. Even when science is very clear on the genesis of the viruses, the majority of Kenyans and other people elsewhere will still interpret them as the invention of the devil. In a country where faith informs how 95 per cent of Kenyans conduct their daily lives, a recent article a recent article highlighted that while African Christians have been praying for a cure for AIDS/HIV and Ebola for decades but not a single person has certainly been cured of these dangerous viruses. The writer suggested that same logic should apply to COVID-19.v

As much as we may be attracted to simplistic and shallow faith-based answers, the Pacific Conference of Churches is appealing to our sisters and brothers in Christ, to not be swayed by claims that COVID19 is a punishment from God for certain communities, countries or people

Yes, Christians are saved through the gospel of God’s grace. However, this salvation does not mean we escape physical corruption, futility, and death. This pandemic, as others before it, is not condemnation, it is not punitive.

In his Letter to the Romans, St Paul writes;

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom 8:1)…

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8:22-23).

Again in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, he writes, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1Thess.5:9) and to the church in Corinth, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1Cor 15:55).

Just as some of us have done in the aftermath of a natural disaster, we must resist the temptation to demonize or scapegoat, which increases in time of stress and shortages.

Covid-19 is not a “Chinese disease”; it is not a “foreign” disease. It is no one’s “fault.”

Likewise, the people who become infected are not to blame.

Jesus himself rejects that approach when he meets a man who is blind, in a story recounted in the Gospel of John (Jn 9:1-12) : “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” says Jesus. This is Jesus’s definitive rejection of the image of the monstrous Father.

In Luke’s Gospel (Lk 13:1-5), Jesus responds to the story of a stone tower that fell and crushed a crowd of people: “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.”vi

It is easy to turn to the readings from the Old Testament that tell of plagues, or prophesies from St. John’s Revelation of disease and famine before the return of the Messiah.

But there is nothing biblical about the pandemic, and SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a family of viruses known since the 1960s.

Two different coronavirus strains have already caused health scares in the past.

Between 2002 and 2003, some 8000 people were infected with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV). Then in 2012, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was discovered. vii

Perhaps, Covid-19 is a reminder that “we want to hide from ourselves the fact that we are mortal and having closed off the spiritual dimension of our life, we are losing ground”. This has been put forward by French Bishop Pascal Roland of Belley-Ars, who has suggested that, “more than the epidemic of coronavirus, we should fear the epidemic of fear”.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, we, are encouraged not to be fearful 365 times in the Bible. Our Lord knows us well, He understands that due to our human nature we fear, and so reminds us to “Be not afraid”. At this time let us take strength in the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.”

Unfortunately, some faith communities have also twisted the response to fear, jeopardising the health of members and also allowing for confusion in the face of strong measures for physical distancing and banning of medium to large groups.

In New Zealand two weeks ago, with already 8 COVID19 cases reported, Destiny Church announced that they would not be following other religious communities in suspending services or going online.

“I’m not about to let a filthy virus scare us out of having church. To equate fear with common sense is nonsense,” Bishop Brian Tamaki said in a statement.viii

“Destiny Church does not fear the Coronavirus, and we will not be closing our churches.” he also claimed that prayer will protect worshipers from the coronavirus.

He also claimed that “tithe-paying Christians – are protected from coronavirus.”ix

Just over a week ago, in further defiance, the church held a “drive-in” worship service in their Auckland church car park. Despite the announcement that people would worship in the safety of their cars, almost all the worshipers stepped out of their cars, with many watching the service together.

One congregant, said the Lord would keep him safe from Covid-19. “If we go, then we go, but if we stay, then we stay here.”x

Jesus reminds us the difference between wise faith and foolish faith in the parable of the wise and foolish builders (Matt: 7:24-27). God’s wisdom in this time can be seen in the decisions by Churches to suspend worship services and offer liturgies and worship material for small groups and families, recorded and live online and radio and television broadcast and limited visitation. These will deepen the spirituality of their members, strengthening their resilience in this critical time.

On Friday, March 27, Pope Francis, in a special prayer service in an empty St Peter’s Square in the Vatican said, “The worldwide coronavirus pandemic is not God’s judgment on humanity, but God’s call on people to judge what is most important to them and resolve to act accordingly from now on”.

His final blessing was an extraordinary blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world).

Popes usually give their blessing “urbi et orbi” only immediately after their election and on Christmas and Easter:xi

“From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:5). And we, together with Peter, “cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us” (cf. 1 Pet 5:7).”xii

Earlier last week, millions of Christians – Catholics and Protestants – across the planet joined together at 12noon Rome time, to say the Lord’s Prayer as a act of spiritual solidarity, mystical communion and to together offer the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. He called on “the Heads of the Churches and the leaders of every Christian community, together with all Christians of the various confessions, to invoke the Almighty, the omnipotent God, to recite at the same time the prayer that Jesus, our Lord, taught us” – the Our Father.

“May the Lord listen to the united prayer of all of His disciples who are preparing themselves to celebrate the victory of the Risen Christ”.xiii

As Christians, we hold fast to the values of Jesus Christ – to love God and neighbour as we love ourselves. We can sure our love for God by protecting our neighbour by not attending church. This is not a failure in our faith, but an act of sacrifice to that supports our being the mystical Body of Christ.

We are called join our hearts in solidarity with each other, to mourn with those who mourn, to share peace with those who are anxious, and manifest God’s unconditional love in practical ways that protect life and alleviate suffering.

As stated in an earlier advisory to PCC member churches,xiv the early church worshipped in homes, in the equivalent of what we today call cell groups. This is an opportune time to generate the closeness of a Christ-like community by worshiping at home or in small approved groups.

Physical Isolation does not mean Social or Spiritual Isolation. This is an opportune time for the church to review its role as God’s hands in society by safely ministering to, providing and caring for the poor, sick and the aged – those most at risk from COVID-19.

As worship has evolved over the nearly two thousand years of our faith community, ministers and leaders of the church have the opportunity introduce new and innovative ways for people to gather and worship while abiding by the national laws on Public Health.

The early church did not have at its disposal the options of radio, television, mobile phones, computers, the internet and live streaming. Being home-bound does not mean that we cannot have a spiritual, meaningful gathering to give thanks to God, pray for strength, healing and courage. Congregations can share their worship gatherings electronically. Ministers can seek safe options to distribute the Eucharist to those confined to their homes.

Pastoral care and visitation become ever so important during this time.

Our faith in the time of COVID19 calls us to not only be discerning, pastoral and practical but also prophetic as we highlight the need for compassion and justice in responses to COVID19, for honest and clear information to be shared and for responsible and practical leadership by the state, community and faith leaders.

Access to correct and timely information by relevant government departments, access to clean water and soap, access to safe shelter for protection and other basic services remain challenges for many across our region and the planet. Our traditional methods of water storage are an example of how indigenous knowledge can supplement best practice from the WHO as resilient Pacific islanders.

As divinely appointed ecological stewards, we acknowledge that the emergence of new diseases and the spread of virulent strains are a result of systemic practices and actions by which we exploit the planet and destroy God’s creation.

As we reflect on what solidarity and compassion mean for humankind in the context of COVID19, we are also called to reflect on the need for humankind to practice the same solidarity and compassion with nature.

Let us continue to engage in practical yet safe actions of loving our neighbour during this crisis; and hold in our hearts:• Health workers and people providing critical services, and those who work under sustained stress.

• Those quarantined who may experience substantial, long-lasting psychological impacts.

• Lonely people and senior citizens who may be more vulnerable to the sense of panic caused by the pandemic.xv

As we approach Easter, let us continue to live in the hope that the resurrected Christ offers, that he has come that we may have life and have it abundantly. (Jn 10:10).

With blessings and love, your servant in Christ,

James Shri Bhagwan (Rev.)
General Secretary

i Regional Ecumenical Organisations that have a partnership with the World Council of Churches are:

Middle East Council of Churches, Pacific Conference of Churches, Christian Conference of Asia,

Caribbean Conference of Churches, All Africa Conference of Churches, Conference of European

Churches, the Canadian Council of Churches and National Council of the Churches of Christ in the

USA (in lieu of a North American Council of Churches), and Latin American Council of Churches.

ii https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51701039

iii https://magazine.zenith.me/en/society/religious-authorities-and-spread-corona-pandemic

iv https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/coronavirus-italian-priest-respirator-younger-patient-italy-bergamo-a9420976.html

v https://www.theelephant.info/features/2020/03/23/religion-in-the-age-of-coronavirus

vi https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/22/opinion/coronavirus-religion.html

vii https://www.keepthefaith.co.uk/2020/03/21/coronavirus-prophet-claims-covid-19-is-a-biblical-plague/

viii https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2020/03/coronavirus-destiny-church-does-not-fear-covid-19-will-remain-open.html

ix https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/120341208/faith-in-the-time-of-coronavirus

x https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/412336/destiny-church-holds-drive-in-church-service

xi https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/covid-19-not-gods-judgment-call-live-differently-pope-says?fbclid=IwAR11FDcApI7hsYwN9BA_Y-2iKR26OijeXjb32hJ49WOzqXgPYMGHZlDgc

xii https://www.ncronline.org/sites/default/files/file_attachments/B0188-XX.02.pdf

xiii https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/pressreleases/all-christians-invited-to-pray-on-wednesday-march-25th/

xiv https://pacificconferenceofchurches.org/f/stay-safe-innovate-sanitize#8422765b-3839-415e-a17e-954ae0e827af

xv https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/resources/documents/overcoming-the-covid-19-pandemic-with-faith-communities-some-guidance-for-churches/