Connecting with believers in testing times: German religious communities in the face of Covid-19

Germany has one of the highest numbers of confirmed cases of the novel Corona virus (Covid-19) in Europe. Emergency measures designed to slow the spread of the disease mean that ordinary public life has ground to a halt.

In a raft of sweeping steps announced on March 16, the German federal and regional governments prohibited not only the opening of non-essential shops, cultural venues, or gyms – but also “gatherings in churches, mosques, synagogues, as well as the gatherings of other faith communities”.1

Suspension of religious services

Religious congregations have followed suit, with their leading personnel stressing the need to abide by authorities’ regulations in order to limit the spread of the virus and protect society’s most vulnerable members. Hence, Sunday mass, Friday prayers, and all other religious services have been cancelled.

The chairman of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, nevertheless cautioned against panic, citing Paul’s Epistle to Timothy: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” Contemplation and prayer at home would be a valuable resource for lifting spirits and replenishing mental strength, he asserted.2

Similarly, the Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany (KRM), an umbrella body bringing together a diverse group of Islamic associations, called upon mosques to cancel communal Friday prayers. The faithful should privilege fulfilling their religious obligations at home. Other commentators provided elements from Quranic interpretation to give a doctrinal back-up to the injunction to stay away from the communal Friday prayer otherwise obligatory for male Muslims.3

To send a sign of resilience and persistence, many churches continue to ring their bells. In the Cologne Central Mosque, the Imam continues to call to prayer inside the large prayer hall: “that’s emotionally important”, KRM spokesman Zekeriya Altuğ said.4

Spiritual support online

However, with all communal religious services suspended – including the diverse social and educational activities taking place in houses of worship – religious communities and their leaders are caught in a bind: they are to some extent prevented from offering spiritual support precisely at the very moment when people might most need it. This has spurred a search for alternative ways to reach the faithful.

The Conference of German Bishops, for instance, has encouraged believers to tune in to the Domradio station, to follow Sunday mass from Cologne Cathedral. It also stressed that many other church services are televised on a range of local TV channels. Finally, the Catholic Church offers a phone hotline as well as an array of online and e-mail chat possibilities for individualised spiritual support.5

Similarly, the Protestant EKD has provided a list of TV and online resources at believers’ disposal from the safety of their homes.6 It has also created a dedicated website-based prayer group, (‘Corona prayer’), where individual prayers and pleas can be sent in to be posted online. A counter informs online users how many people are simultaneously on the website, offering a virtual communal prayer experience.7

Helping others as a testament to one’s faith

Religious authorities have widely encouraged social activism as another avenue to express and renew one’s religious commitments beyond Sunday service or Friday prayer. The Islam Council of Germany (IRD) and the Islamic Community Millî Görüş (IGMG) – shunned by much of the German political class for their real or supposed ‘fundamentalist’ leanings – have called upon young people to assist elderly members of their mosque communities and neighbourhoods.8

DİTİB, Germany’s largest Islamic association with strong ties to Turkey, has taken a similar initiative. Under the tagline “Let’s stand together and show solidarity!”, it provides blueprints for leaflets that could be placed e.g. in stairwells of apartment blocks, informing elderly residents of their younger Muslim neighbours’ willingness to do their shopping for them.9

The Central Welfare Agency of Jews in Germany (ZWST) has created the Chawerim Help Exchange group on Facebook: in German and in Russian, Jewish student associations, a range of other organisations, and individual volunteers are offering social services – such as running errands or supervising children – to those who might require them.10

Muted criticisms of restrictive measures

Overall, then, the representatives of Germany’s large religious organisations have been supportive of the government’s attempts to curb the spread of the virus, even if that has meant that religious practices have been suspended. Perhaps the role played by religious gatherings in spreading the virus in Iran or South Korea – where the Shia shrine city of Qom and a Christian sect in Daegu have become epicentres of the pandemic – serve as a cautionary tale.

Nevertheless, some wondered whether it was right for religious institutions to close their doors at a moment when believers would require spiritual assistance. Johannes zu Eltz, Catholic dean of the city of Frankfurt, bemoaned what he saw as his Church’s all-too-quick retreat in the face of Covid-19: “We should resist the impulse to flee”, he asserted. “I see it as my duty to stay where I’d much rather run away. And the force to do so comes from Christ”, he added.

The former chairwoman of the Lutheran EKD, Margot Käßmann, struck a similar note: “It is Christian not to let oneself be driven by fear”, she said. Relying on the same line from the Epistle to Timothy as Bedford-Strohm, Käßmann read this Bible passage as encouraging Christians to be brave in the face of the virus – rather than simply board up shop.

Thus, Käßmann demanded that churches remain open as “places of solace”, even if services would no longer be held.11 The Muslim KRM made similar statements with respect to its mosques.12 Yet as more and more German regional governments are moving towards implementing a full-fledged lockdown – i.e. a curfew that only permits being outside for trips to the supermarket or the doctor, and for limited physical exercise – houses of worship will find themselves starved of attendees even for individual prayer.

Reaching non-German speakers, religious minorities

It is also worth noting that believers of different faiths may be impacted somewhat differently by the ongoing public health crisis. The fact that the Jewish ZWST chose to offer its services in both German and Russian points to a particularly salient dimension: that some people, particularly from the country’s religious minorities, might struggle to follow official pronouncements on the virus.

Journalist Nalan Sipar took to Twitter to highlight the scarcity of official information available in Turkish or Arabic; a fact that, according to her, led to anxiety and false information spreading among non-German-speaking populations.

The Federal Ministry for Health subsequently stepped up its flyer production to include information in languages other than German, and also commissioned Sipar to shoot a Turkish-language explainer video.13 Similarly, the EKD also funds web portals in Arabic and Farsi that offer up-to-date information on social and political life in Germany, with special coverage devoted to the ongoing Corona virus situation.14

Difficult weeks ahead

In the coming weeks, Germany’s major religious communities are all planning on holding major liturgical and festive occasions: Christians will be celebrating Easter; subsequently, Catholics traditionally hold their First Communions and Protestants their Confirmations – major celebrations for the admission of youth as full-fledged members of the church community. Jews will be celebrating Pessach in April, and the Islamic holy month of Ramadan will begin on April 23.

Religious leaders have so far held back and not pronounced themselves on the ways in which the Corona virus might force them to make difficult choices and cancel or postpone many of their cherished activities that normally mark these occasions. Germany’s religious communities are in thrall to the unfolding situation like everyone else.

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