Religious solidarity amid COVID-19
Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at Digital IRO Day
28 April 2020
Venerable Seck Kwang Phing, President of IRO,
Ladies and gentlemen
- Good evening. I am glad to join you to celebrate IRO Day. A big hello to Ms Denise Phua, my parliamentary colleague.
- Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. This is the first time in IRO’s 71 years of history that we are gathering online to mark this occasion. I am heartened by IRO’s commitment to push ahead digitally, and not let the physical distance separate us.
COVID-19’s impact on religious communities
- Three weeks ago, the nation-wide “circuit breaker” measures kicked in to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in the community. We had to close places of worship and columbaria. This was on top of other measures we implemented before the circuit breaker, such as the suspension of all religious services and the cancellation of major religious events.
- I understand these measures posed a great challenge to our religious leaders who have to safeguard public health while supporting the religious needs of their followers. During the last few weeks, Jews were observing Passover and Christians were commemorating the Holy Week. This was followed soon after by the Tamil New Year. A few days ago, Muslims began the holy month of Ramadan. Next week, Buddhists will celebrate Vesak.
- These are usually occasions for families and the communities to gather for prayers, meals and fellowship. But in these challenging times, all of us have to find new ways to practise our faith without being in the physical presence of one another.
- In times of crisis, the human instinct is to turn to religion for comfort and solace. The ability to go to your temple, your church, mosque or synagogue is important to many people as they deal with anxiety and calamity – anxiety over the high infection rate; anxiety over their jobs or loss of income.
- People’s spiritual needs are rising, yet it is harder for religious leaders to support them. It was a difficult decision to close places of worship, suspend religious services and cancel major religious celebrations. It is also heart-wrenching not to be able to say goodbye to loved ones who have passed away as funeral rituals can only involve a very small group.
Religious leadership through the crisis
- One may be tempted to blame the pandemic for the disruption it has brought to our lives. But it has also presented us with an opportunity to practise our religions in new and creative ways. Pope Francis said, “Embracing his cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time… It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognise that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.”
- Around the world, religious leaders have issued guidance to their communities on how religious practices can be adapted to the COVID-19 situation. For example, religious leaders have taken to media, email and radio to conduct daily prayers and worship and to mobilise volunteers to serve the elderly and at-risk communities.
- In Singapore, our religious leaders have also adapted their religious practices. You had to make deep adjustments to keep worship services safe. Many of you also used technology to broadcast services, such as the Qing Ming ritual at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery and Easter services for our churches. Mosques have made lectures and prayer guides for Ramadan available online.
- I understand how difficult it has been for our religious communities to make these adjustments. Some of you had to learn to use new technology at short notice. Yet you did, because you understood that if we did not, these religious activities could threaten public health and our communities would struggle with their religious needs.
- I am deeply grateful to our religious leaders for your wisdom and leadership in understanding the gravity of the pandemic and complying with the circuit breaker measures. You play a critical role in limiting the spread of COVID-19. Thanks to your efforts and that of many others, we can see that the number of new local cases has come down.
- We must stay united and not let ourselves be divided by this crisis. We have seen how COVID-19 has triggered hate, Islamophobia, extremism and xenophobia around the world. Some groups are exploiting fears surrounding the disease to scapegoat and attack specific communities. For example, there have been physical and verbal attacks against Chinese and other Asians, including some Singaporeans, hate speech blaming Hispanics for the spread of the virus, and calls by some political leaders for migrants to be denied access to medical care.
- In India, COVID-19 has fanned the flames of Islamophobia. A Muslim missionary group that held its annual conference in Delhi was linked to dozens of COVID-19 cases. It did not take long for videos falsely claiming to show members of the group spitting on police and others to go viral on social media, under the hashtag #CoronaJihad. They tried to put out the message that Muslims were weaponizing the coronavirus to target Hindus. This has heightened sectarian tensions in India.
- In China, a recent cluster of COVID-19 cases linked to the Nigerian community in Guangzhou has sparked a wave of xenophobia against Africans. Some of them have become targets of forced evictions and suspicion.
- In Singapore, we have seen racist and insensitive comments directed at our foreign workers, blaming them for the rapid spread of COVID-19 in dorms. Recently, a man was accused of hurling racist remarks at a Chinese storekeeper, attributing the source of the virus to the Chinese people.
- We must put a stop to these divisive forces. The coronavirus does not distinguish between race, religion, language or nationality. The solution to this pandemic will not come through divisive agendas, but through solidarity and cooperation. Let us stay united against the forces of hate that threaten to tear us apart.
- In conclusion, I would like to thank the IRO for playing an important role in fostering unity and inter-religious friendship for the past 71 years. IRO leaders have shown your solidarity in the face of this crisis, and I appreciate the IRO’s statements of support for the Government’s measures to tackle COVID-19. Many of you have also continued to offer each other support, hope and greetings, especially during major religious events.
- I also commend your effort this evening to launch an Inter-Religious Pledge to Strengthen our Social Defence. This Pledge is a timely reminder that we must continue to strengthen the bonds among our people of different faiths, so that we can live in harmony and build our Singapore Together.
- I encourage our religious leaders to continue giving comfort and hope to our people in these challenging times. The fight against COVID-19 is likely to be a long one. But with your help, we will prevail, and emerge stronger from this crisis.
- Stay home, stay healthy and stay safe everyone. Thank you.
Last updated on 28 April 2020