Human Rights and Freedom: The Risk of Scapegoating Religious Groups.
Something we learned from the COVID-19 crisis is how easily religious minorities become scapegoats for social problems. This does not happen spontaneously. Religious minorities have enemies, and they use crises as opportunities for discrimination. One lesson for the post-COVID-19 world is that discrimination of religious minorities should be stopped before it escalates into persecution and violence.
Looking for scapegoats is historically common in times of epidemics. Often, these scapegoats are identified with unpopular religious minorities. During the Black Death epidemics of the 14th century in Europe, Jews were accused of intentionally spreading the plague out of their alleged hatred for the Christian majority. Thousands were lynched or burned at stake. In the city of Strasbourg, France, only, on February 14, 1349, 2,000 Jews were burned for their supposed plague-spreading crimes (Gottfried 1983, 74).
In 1545, during the rule of John Calvin (1509–1564) in Geneva, religious dissidents were blamed for an outbreak of the plague, and at least 29 were executed (Naphy 2003, 90–1). Catholics in Protestant countries and Protestants in Catholic countries continued to be executed in the 16th and 17th centuries under an accusation of plague-spreading (Naphy 2002). As late as 1630 in Milan, practitioners of forms of folk religion easily mistaken for witchcraft were among those accused of spreading the plague, and some were executed (Nicolini 1937)—a story well-known in Italy as it was mentioned in the country’s national novel, The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873).
It is not surprising that during the 2020 COVID-19 epidemic, religious minorities found themselves accused of spreading the virus through their gatherings and missionary activities. In South Korea, a new religious movement is known as Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (in short, Shincheonji), was scapegoated as the cause of the epidemic there, after one of its members tested positive after having attended a religious gathering of the group and presumably infected hundreds of co-religionists. In fact, she was originally diagnosed with a common cold and allowed by the hospital to go home and attend the gathering. Only later she was tested for the virus when the damage was done. The government then asked Shincheonji to supply a full list of all its members in South Korea and even abroad. When the lists were received, authorities suspected they were not complete and raided Shincheonji’s offices to secure the “real” lists. Although it came out that the lists Shincheonji had given to the government were, in fact, accurate, with minor mistakes for which the movement apologized, politicians who had a previous history of opposition to Shincheonji went on and filed a number of legal actions aiming at wiping it and its ancillary organizations out of existence (Introvigne et al. 2020).
In France, the evangelical megachurch Porte Ouverte Chrétienne (Christian Open Door) was accused for an international event that gathered more than 3,000 persons in Mulhouse from February 17 to 21, 2020. Reportedly, African participants took the virus to several African countries, and hundreds of French devotees were infected as well. Porte Ouverte reported that, after the accusations, children were insulted in their schools and church members were beaten in the street. The megachurch admitted the gathering might have contributed to spreading the virus, but claimed it has been “scapegoated” and noted that before February 21, no restrictions existed for public events, and on February 18, thousands had gathered in the same city of Mulhouse to welcome the visiting French President Emmanuel Macron, with no restrictions or precautions (Lindell 2020).
In Italy, the Roman Catholic Neo-Catechumenate movement was accused by the Governor of the Region of Campania and some media of having irresponsibly spread the virus through “mystical rites,” and threatened with criminal actions, because of retreats it organized in two towns of the province of Salerno, Atena Lucana and Sala Consilina, respectively from February 28 to March 1 and on March 4, 2020. 16 participants to the gatherings were infected, and two died, including a priest (Iurillo 2020, Cernuzio 2020). In this case, also, the Neo-Catechumenate answered that the ban on public gatherings was introduced in Italy only on March 8, and both the local bishop and the bishop of the diocese most of the participants came from stated that the movement was being unfairly scapegoated (Cernuzio 2020). On February 29, without objections by the Governor, some 25,000 had gathered in Naples, Campania’s capital, to see the local soccer team defeat Torino F.C. (Guerrera 2020).
In India, the Muslim missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat was accused of spreading the virus through a large gathering it held in Delhi in early March and the wanderings of its traveling missionaries. The Chief Minister of the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, accused missionaries to misbehave in the hospitals to which they had been admitted, and called the Tablighi “enemies of the humanity” (Dongare, Pandey and Gosh 2020). While the hospital incidents should be obviously investigated, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is a Hindu cleric well-known for his inflammatory anti-Muslim statements (Barry 2017). A campaign developed in India claiming that the Tablighi were consciously infecting Hindus with what was called “coronajihad” or “TablighiJamatVirus,” using fake videos and more than 300,000 posts on Twitter in a few days (Perrigo 2020).
There are additional examples throughout the world. It is of course true that religious gatherings, pilgrimages, and processions may be dangerous in times of epidemics, as are all other mass events, including soccer games, and may contribute to spreading viruses. It is also the case that some Protestant conservative and fundamentalist churches in the United States and elsewhere openly defied state or municipal lockdown orders and hold services illegally. In other incidents, however, religious organizations made the same mistake as organizers of soccer games and other public events did. They hold their services and paid a price in human lives. But they did not breach any law, as long as the laws still (mistakenly, as it was discovered later) allowed public events to proceed.
The question, thus, is why religious organizations received more public blame than other groups. The Champions League game between the Italian team Atalanta and the Spanish team Valencia of February 19, 2020, was called a “biological bomb,” likely responsible for thousands of deaths among the 44,000 fans who gathered in Milan and those who were infected by them (Hope 2020). Yet, nobody called for sanctions against the European soccer federation UEFA, which insisted the game should be played. On the other hand, there were suggestions that religious groups that gathered in the same days should be punished, and even disbanded.
But not all religious groups. As scapegoating theories would predict, the virus was the opportunity for singling out already unpopular religious organizations. Shincheonji is the main target of a very active and even violent Christian anti-cult movement in South Korea, which is supported by some politicians and has tried for years to destroy this fast-growing movement (Introvigne et al. 2020). Muslim activists are unpopular among India’s Hindu majority. In France, Pentecostals and other Christians that are not perceived as “really” included in the mainline of the “historical” Protestant churches had long been at risk of being attracted into the frequent governmental campaigns against “cults” (Palmer 2011, 16 and 220). The Neo-Catechumenate movement has a sizable share of critics in Italy, including among fellow Catholics, both for its conservative morals and creative, progressive liturgy (Magister 2012).
In short, religious groups are scapegoated in a crisis if they already have organized opposition, ready to use the crisis as an opportunity. In the post-virus world, the activities of anti-cult groups and other extremists should be exposed for what they are, organized promotion of religious intolerance and discrimination, and religious minorities should be effectively protected.
Managing Director, CESNUR
(Center for Studies on New Religions)
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