Churches across locked-down Bangladesh are closed since Easter Sunday, as Christian leaders urge parishioners to worship at home to help flatten the coronavirus curve in this country of 165 million people.
To date, 482 cases of coronavirus and 30 deaths have been officially reported, but cases are rising in Dhaka, one of the world’s most densely populated capitals, and beyond.
“All Christians will be offering prayers in their own homes today,” says Most Rev. Ponen Paul Kubi, bishop of Mymensingh Diocese in north-central Bangladesh. “Everyone should follow all the rules given by the government for their good.”
On 18 March 2020, the Government of Bangladesh declared a national lock-down in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. The bishop took to Facebook to inform the 75,000 Catholics in his diocese about new pandemic practices during Holy Week and on Easter Sunday. “We circulated a message—pray at home, no gatherings and keep social distancing everywhere.”
Priests and imams across this predominately Muslim country are working together to alert their communities about how to protect themselves from COVID-19, with support from World Vision.
Faith leaders are highly respected and influential in Bangladeshi society. They are well-regarded for their honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity. People listen to them.
“In mid-February, I heard about COVID-19 that was breaking out across the world,” says Shariful Islam, imam of Mondumala mosque and president of the Community Hope and Action Team (CHAT). “Sensing the gravity of coronavirus, I sat with my committee members to discuss how to prepare ourselves at the community level.”
Imam Shariful says he is using his influence to inform community members how to protect themselves from the virus. “I talk about the coronavirus pandemic in the khutba (sermon) each week during jummah (Friday) prayer. I advise community people to maintain basic personal hygiene. [Since the lock-down], now I suggest that people offer their prayers at home.”
Fellow imam, Nazrul Islam, is doing his part as well. "I am continuously disseminating messages by megaphone on COVID-19 in order to make my community aware,” he says. “I ask them to avoid big gatherings during prayer time, especially jummah."
The two imams are among 1,765 faith leaders (Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists) who participated in World Vision community engagement workshops last year. Together, they discussed how to better protect children in their communities, drawing on principles and practices from their respective faith traditions. Topics covered child rights and protection, ending physical violence against children, positive parenting, the disadvantages of child marriage and preventing child labour. The faith leaders are adapting those lessons learned and applying them to COVID-19 prevention. To date, World Vision has mobilized more than 400 faith leaders to get the word out.
“Faith leaders are the most influential people in our society,” says Mridul Toju, World Vision’s Faith and Development Coordinator. “They are very motivated and engaged in community development activities. They work with families to end physical violence against children, and to stop child marriage and child labour. Now we are engaging them in COVID-19 awareness-raising.”
Hindu priest Himanshu Bikash Sarkar is doing everything he can to help prepare and protect his community in Mymensingh.
“World Vision facilitators gave us awareness information about coronavirus,” says Himanshu, president of a Hindu leaders’ association. “Earlier, we Hindu leaders went to every house and sensitized people to keep their children clean and safe. As a religious leader, I can’t solve problems alone. So we, the temple committee members, made a list of day labourers without work and other vulnerable people. We communicated this to the local government and arranged for 100 kg of rice and corn to be distributed to the poor and vulnerable who can’t go to work. We are praying to God to save the world from this disease very soon.”