Prof. Karam, houses of worship are empty, central religious festivals are being suspended. Is the COVID-19 crisis also a crisis for religions?
Azza Karam: I don’t think it’s a crisis for religion, it’s actually an opportunity for religions to have to reconsider their spiritual practices, rituals and rites. It is not a crisis for those who are believing, it’s not a crisis of faith. In fact, it’s a moment, where religions are very much called for by people who are feeling a great deal of fear. And religious institutions as the first responders in humanitarian crisis are fully busy! They may not be open for services, but they’re hardly able to have time to do anything because they’re busy serving communities like at no moment before – it’s a humanitarian crisis. So no, I don’t think it’s a crisis for religion.
The pandemic is affecting people worldwide and of all faiths. What can we learn from this for interreligious collaboration?
Karam: Religions for Peace has just launched a Multireligious Humanitarian Fund. The idea behind this fund is to energize, infuse and mobilize the religious organizations and religious communities to work together in the service of the communities that each one of them is doing anyway. We know the Catholic Church and the Catholic NGOs are working to serve their own communities, and we know that the Protestant Churches and organizations are working to serve their own communities, as are the Muslims, and so on. The Fund is about bringing them to work together and ensuring and encouraging them that these interreligious platforms actually can work together in this moment in time. Now, Religions for Peace (RfP) in particular has a very large interreligious infrastructure around the world. So for us it was the easiest thing to do to launch this fund because we don’t have to look for actors that are prepared to come together. The understanding here is that when they are coming together already as interreligious entities, structures or partnerships, there is already a trust built among them, otherwise they wouldn’t have been working together. And therefore, this humanitarian crisis is an opportunity to strengthen, to build on their trust. Where they have not come together beyond making statements or hosting a meeting, now they have the resources to do more service together, and so they continue to build real trust based on real collaboration between them. And that will survive beyond the humanitarian disaster into the post-disaster era. That’s the purpose of the Fund.
What are your recommendations in this regard for PaRD?
Karam: If there is one lesson that we’re learning is that human need with COVID-19 is universal and it’s intense, and there is a lot that all humans need right now. I think the issue is that how can PaRD contribute to the need that’s out there. What PaRD has that is its strength right now, is the ability to bring together donor governments from the North with Faith-Based organizations (FBOs). The value added is if these donor countries are able to provide support which stimulates and enables these FBOs to work more and better together. What we need to do is to oil the engine of a collaboration that crosses national, religious and institutional boundaries. PaRD needs to enable something catalytic, multireligious and multinational that’s transformative for people and lives!
You are currently in New York, a city severely affected by COVID-19. How do religious communities respond to this crisis in the city?
Karam: A number of churches have actually already been transformed into temporary hospital spaces because the hospitals are running out of space. Many of the religious communities have mobilized their doctors and nurses. So Christians, Jews and Muslims are now being recruited to work in the national New York infrastructure, because there is a serious shortage of medical personal. Many of the soup kitchens that were always anyway organized by the churches are running 24 hours nonstop, recruiting from the communities nonstop, because people still need food. Authorities shut down the schools and public schools in the US are also the place where students get their meals. Now the churches have come together with other NGOs and they’re offering alternative meals, there’s packed boxes for meals that children and their families come and pick up. They’re working in every way you can imagine possible. Because that’s their business anyway and now they’re ramping it up to something amazing.
What stories of hope encourage you in your work throughout the crisis?
Karam: I am absolutely amazed by the fact, that every single member of the RfP-staff is so immersed in this sense of “We’ve got to do something”, that literally nobody sleeps. I’m so touched by their total complete commitment. And you understand that, when you work in a religious organization, obviously there is something else that moves you to serve in that particular space and I can see that in the staff. This COVID-19-thing is in a way unearthing the original instinct for why we’re doing this work in the religious space. It’s revealing it more. That for me on a personal level has been very inspiring. In terms of Religions for Peace I absolutely loved the fact that as soon as the situation got serious by mid-March, we got questions from 90 interreligious offices: “What can we do?” I was expecting the question “We need”, but they said “Help us to be more helpful”. Even in countries with other crises like Venezuela, they wanted to engage. It took a while, but two weeks ago the “What can we do?” became replaced on the same level through “Ok now we need help here in our countries”, because clearly the curve in those countries is going up. That’s where the idea for the Multireligious Humanitarian Fund came from. That’s the stories of hope – and the guidance. Because the hope gives you guidance as well.
The interview was lead by Claudia Zeisel, PaRD Secretariat.