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Research details collaboration, conflict between church and state during pandemic

While many religious leaders around the world promoted public health measures during the Covid pandemic, many decried them and some flat out defied government orders.

(CN) — As Covid-19 spread across the globe, government public health measures affected how people gathered to practice their religion. In a report published Tuesday, the Pew Research Center found similar shares of countries reported instances of conflict and collaboration between religious organizations and governments during 2020.

Pew started tracking government restrictions and social hostilities against world religions in 2007. The Covid-19 pandemic provided researchers with a new variable to track: public health measures.

Pew studied 198 countries covering 99.5% of the world's population, including 192 of the United Nation's 193 member states and six territories.

“When the pandemic hit, we were very curious how religious groups were being affected by Covid-19 restrictions, how they were responding and in turn, how governments were responding to how religious groups were functioning in the parameters of the pandemic,” explained Samirah Majumdar, a research associate at Pew who wrote the report.

In addition to combing media coverage, researchers pulled data from 19 sources recording the events of 2020 including reports from by the U.S. Department of State, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations.

“The interesting thing is that you could have countries where religious groups were defying public health guidelines, but at the same time, in those countries, you could have other religious groups, or even religious leaders in the same denomination, cooperating with the government, in promoting, social distancing, or mask wearing or promoting online religious services, to abide by public health guidelines,” Majumdar observed.

Researchers found that faith leaders in 47% of countries promoted public health measures during the pandemic, while religious groups in 35% of countries defied government orders.

Pew found religious leaders in nearly half the world instructing worshipers to stay home, practice social distancing and wear masks.

“Almost every church in America did comply,” said Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. “We saw some on the television who very publicly pushed back against Covid-19 restrictions, but I have data from Pew from March of 2021, a year after the pandemic started, and almost 90% of churches were mitigating in some way, shape, or form.”

Looking at the United States, Burge argued most Americans were driven by their political views rather than religious beliefs during the pandemic.  

“Seventy-five percent of Republicans are white Christians, so they're going to advocate for the rights of white Christians as much as they can,” Burge said. “That's their base and they're on guard looking for signs of oppression, like churches being closed down. And you heard that early rhetoric in the early days of the pandemic, ‘Why are liquor stores open and churches closed?' Because they wanted to make that very stark dichotomy.”

Pew found religious groups in about a third of countries opposed public health measures. Of them, 27% spoke out and filed lawsuits, while 35% outright defied government orders.

According to the Courthouse News database, 31 lawsuits were filed in the U.S. in 2020 challenging limits on church gatherings as well as mask and social distancing requirements.

“When the government protocols and health and safety measures were put in effect, some of the opposition was ideological resistance, but a lot of it was also just resistance to change,” said Heidi A. Campbell, a professor of communication at Texas A&M University studying how U.S. churches use technology. "Church institutions aren't known as the most innovative."

Internationally, Pew tracked opposition to public health orders including Muslims speaking against Sri Lanka’s policy of cremating Covid-19 fatalities, and the president of the Argentine Council for Religious Freedom asking the government to designate priests as essential workers.

Nearly one in four countries used force against worshipers found to be in defiance of public health orders. Worshipers in Mexico and Israel experienced raids; worshipers in Comoros, Gabon and Nepal were tear-gassed; worshipers in Azerbaijan and the United States were arrested.

In India, Indonesia and Yemen, several worshipers died in police custody.

Nearly one in ten governments outright blamed religious groups or gatherings for the spread of Covid-19, including Pakistan, Cambodia and Canada. Twice as many countries, 20%, reported private citizens and organizations targeting religious groups.

“In more than half of these countries (23 out of the 39), such comments were made against Jews,” the report noted. “This trope dates back to the 14th century, when Jews were accused of spreading the Black Plague by poisoning food and wells, and they were the victims of mass killings.”

While one in five countries reported private citizens scapegoating religious groups for the pandemic, only four countries — India, Argentina, Italy and the United States — reported private persons committing actual physical violence or vandalism against religious groups.

Pew made no judgment on whether any government or religious organization's actions were justified.

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