Father Ronal M. Varghese, a Latin Catholic priest and educator in Kollam in Kerala, has had an epiphany. “A Mass without community participation is like a man without a soul,” he says, describing the ritual he has been celebrating in private in the chapel as “mechanical and monotonous”. “It’s better to open up places of worship to ease stress during these hard times. Of course, with social distancing rules in place,” he says.
He’s not the only one. On May 15, Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, wrote to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan seeking permission to open the community’s churches—with the requisite social distancing norms–for Mass. In fact, he wanted all places of worship in the state to be opened. The CM responded on May 18 saying it was inadvisable while the state was still battling the coronavirus. Besides, there was a directive from the Union government to keep places of worship closed during the lockdown.
Covid has killed thousands regardless of their faith in India. Kerala has so far recorded only nine of the 5,164 COVID-19 casualties in India (as on May 31) but is watchful after a renewed surge and warnings from the Indian Council of Medical Research against more aggressive strains of the virus. The state has seen 642 cases in the past 10 days alone.
The Centre’s ‘do not open till infection levels drop’ list includes places of worship and educational institutions. An advisory has been issued to start online classes for the education sector. At least two religious congregationsthe Tablighi Jamaat’s markaz in Nizamuddin, Delhi, and at a gurudwara in Nanded, Maharashtra—have been COVID-19 hotspots. But Kerala’s religious leaders fear their grip on the faithful is slipping after two months of the lockdown. Some Christian priests have gone online and uploaded the Mass and sermons but the number of hits has been underwhelming.
The state has 28,000 Hindu temples which include popular shrines like Sabarimala, Guruvayur and the Padmanabhaswami temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Some 1,800 of these are governed by the state Devaswom boards. Among the other communities, the Christians run 4,951 churches and the Muslims 6,520 mosques in the state. The state demographic profile lists 18.3 million Hindus, 8.87 million Muslims and 6.14 million Christians (Census 2011).
Kerala had ordered the closing of all places of worship to devotees on March 23 (there are 24 cases registered against those who violated the ban). Religious leaders cutting across faiths feel the restrictions must now be eased in a phased manner.
The state government reopened liquor outlets on May 28 and has introduced a virtual queue system (through the BevQ app) to limit crowds. Some religious activists are incensed by what they say are the government’s double standards. “The state government must remember that spirituality is more important than spirits,” says Rahul Easwar, right-wing activist and president of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena which led the Sabarimala protests (against the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50), questioning the logic behind keeping places of worship closed. Thousands of families–including those of priests and musicians–who depend on the temples for their livelihood are now out of a job, he says.
Theologian and former spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church Fr Paul Thelakkat supports the idea but with reservations. “I’m for opening churches and other places of worship for services but not for festivals. And it must be with sufficient health protocols in place. The churches were very cooperative in the fight against the pandemic. Now they should act responsibly when they offer religious services. I believe in common prayer and spiritual gatherings but I do not want fundamentalist, foolhardy pietism to destroy the gains we have made against COVID-19,” the priest said.
Renowned Hindu priest Brahmasree Kalidasa Bhattathirpad has a more anger-of-the-gods line to his argument. According to him, keeping religious places locked up may generate “negative energy and the anger of holy spirits”. “Never in our history have places of worship remained locked for so long. We must open our doors to reduce the tension and fear. I think if we perform rituals and poojas, it may help fight the pandemic better,” Bhattathirpad says. But he also insists that social distancing norms must be followed.
State government officials say the opening of religious places is “out of the question”, especially when some 125,000 people are under quarantine and surveillance. “In fact, we are planning more restrictions on community gatherings and may order a complete lockdown again in hotspots,” says a senior government official.
Bishop emeritus of the Syro-Malabar church, Kanjirapally diocese, and member of the Covid expert committee Mathew Arackel, says the chief minister is right in continuing the restrictions. “We are still in the danger zone and infections are spreading to more areas. Considering the situation, it’s better to keep religious places shut for a few more days,” says Arackel. He adds that the opening of religious places will attract crowds and fears that enforcing social distancing will be a problem.
Meanwhile, Muslim clerics like Hussain Madavoor say they are waiting for the government to take an “appropriate decision” over the opening of religious places.
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