Religious leaders pledge to maintain solidarity and strengthen social defence amid Covid-19 crisis

The pledge took place on video-conferencing platform Zoom.

SINGAPORE - While the circuit breaker measures have made physical gatherings impossible, religious groups will continue interfaith learning and understanding through online sharing, seminars and meet-ups.

On Tuesday (April 28), members of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) took an inter-religious pledge to uphold their commitment to maintaining solidarity in crisis.

They also made a commitment to strengthening the nation's social defence, by showing appreciation to Singapore's front-line workers, disseminating accurate and reliable information, and supporting the nation's efforts in containing the Covid-19 outbreak by adjusting and adapting their religious rituals and practices.

The pledge, held in conjunction with IRO Day 2020 - which marks the organisation's 71st anniversary - took place on video-conferencing platform Zoom. The event was attended by about 100 people.

Minister for Culture, Community And Youth Grace Fu, who was guest of honour at the event, noted that the circuit breaker measures, which had included the closure of places of worship and columbaria, had presented religious leaders with "great challenges". This comes on top of other measures such as the suspension of all religious services.

"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," she said, noting that it has been harder for religious leaders to support followers even though their followers' spiritual needs have been growing.

But Covid-19 has also presented Singaporeans with an opportunity to practise their religions in new and creative ways, she said, citing examples such as Khong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery's use of technology to broadcast the Qing Ming ritual, as well as churches doing the same for at Easter services.

Mosques have also made lectures and prayer guides for Ramadan available online. She thanked religious leaders for their wisdom and leadership amid the crisis, and in adapting to the measures despite difficulties.

Because of this and the efforts of others, the number of new local infection cases has come down, Ms Fu said.

The coronavirus has, however, sparked a wave of discrimination and prejudice in other parts of the world, she said.

In India, a Muslim missionary group that held its annual conference in New Delhi was linked to dozens of Covid-19 cases. Videos that falsely claimed to show members of the group spitting on police and others went viral on social media, suggesting that Muslims were weaponising the coronavirus to target Hindus. This has heightened sectarian tensions in the country, noted Ms Fu.

In China, a recent cluster of Covid-19 cases linked to the Nigerian community had also sparked a wave of xenophobia against Africans, with some becoming targets of forced evictions and suspicion.

Singapore is not immune to occurrences of such events, she noted. Racist and insensitive comments have been directed at foreign workers, blaming them for the rapid spread of Covid-19. A man was also recently accused of hurling racist remarks at a Chinese storekeeper and attributing the source of the virus to the Chinese.

Ms Fu urged religious leaders to stay united against such forces of hatred. "We must guard against and 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."

The IRO's pledge on Tuesday builds on a commitment made at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies in June last year, when more than 250 religious organisations here signed a commitment to safeguard religious harmony in the wake of growing inter-ethnic tensions across the globe.

The organisation is represented by 10 faiths: the Baha'i faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism and Zoroastrianism.

It has been building up online engagement efforts over the past two years, and continues to do so amid the circuit breaker, said a spokesman. For instance, members of its youth wing had organised a video meeting to join Muslim members in the breaking of the Ramadan fast last Friday.

Imam Habib Hassan Al-Attas of the Ba'alwie Mosque, who attended the event, said that it was a good opportunity for religious leaders to keep in touch and pray together.

While they are no longer able to visit one another at mosques or churches like they used to, religious leaders and members of the different communities continue to work together and help one another, he said.

"We've been continuing to help each other in volunteering or charity efforts. The Christians, the Hindus, the Sikhs, the Muslims and so on - all of them are giving food to the dormitories and to the poor... And when we help, we help those of all races and religions, and share resources with one another."

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