Doctors, nurses and scientists worldwide desperately need help against not only COVID, but a pandemic of disinformation that is disconnecting millions of people from facts and reality. Conspiracy fantasies spread fears that the COVID virus is a hoax—invented, say, to cover up deaths caused by cellphone signals, or to let governments inject us with microchip-infused vaccines to track everything we do. As health sciences and even critical thinking struggle to be heard amid the shouting, one of their best allies could be science’s old, perceived foe—religion. At least, that is, religion as exercised by interfaith communities.

Pope Francis, center, meets leaders of varied faiths during his visit to Iraq in March. He presses religious communities to urgently repair COVID’s harms to human welfare and warns of the “risk of misinformation” online. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Pope Francis, center, meets leaders of varied faiths during his visit to Iraq in March. He presses religious communities to urgently repair COVID’s harms to human welfare and warns of the “risk of misinformation” online. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

Amid the global battle against COVID, a lie went viral on social media last year, urging Muslims in Israel (17 percent of the country’s citizenry) to ignore the disease. This conspiracy fantasy declared that the World Health Organization was secretly paying hospitals to falsely report deaths from COVID. A network of Jewish and Muslim leaders quickly gathered health officials for a briefing with Muslim clerics across Israel. “Within 24 hours, we clarified the fake news,” as Islamic leaders denounced the fantasy on TV and in newspapers and social media, Rabbi Daniel Roth said. Roth and other religious activists spoke to an online audience at USIP’s annual iftar—a gathering for the evening meal with which Muslims break their daytime fast during the month of Ramadan.

Roth’s story is part of a deeply mixed pattern of religious responses to the pandemic of disinformation. Disastrously, religious communities and leaders (like secular ones) often have echoed claims about COVID that are driven by political or cultural grievance and polarization rather than facts or critical thought. In this ecosystem of disinformation, Hindu congregations dismissed COVID protections and gathered in millions at last month’s Kumbh Mela festival in India—fuel for what now is the world’s deadliest surge of the disease. Evangelical Christians have spurned masks and vaccinations as satanic markers that would prevent their spiritual salvation. Some Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other believers have rioted against restrictions on group prayers.

At the same time, religious figures from Pope Francis to the Dalai Lama have emphasized the principle that drives interfaith activists’ responses to the pandemic: a shared religious obligation to save lives. Since confronting the conspiracy fantasy last year, the Muslim and Jewish interfaith leaders in Israel have sustained a campaign to quash lies and fears over COVID protections. Their joint declarations “advocate for peace not only between our religions, but also … between religion and science,” said Roth.

“We have so many different religious communities that are not always unfortunately living in peace with one another, but COVID was a moment that challenged us to have to think and work together in a way that we have not done before,” said Roth, who directs a peacebuilding organization, Mosaica.

Countering Fear in Zimbabwe

Humanity’s disinformation crisis is rooted in a species-wide problem of trust. The disruptions of accelerating change, such as economic globalization and digital technologies, create insecurities and fears that make it harder for people to trust institutions or groups they feel they don’t understand. Political scientists have noted for years that this is driving us to retreat to “in-groups” that fit our most comfortable identities—racial, religious, national or other. This has helped fuel political and cultural polarizations worldwide. Now social media provide a growth medium and a powerful transmission channel for that mistrust, notably through disinformation—and especially where sentiments of mistrust are strong.

Thus, those who lead the relatively trusted “in-groups” of religious communities play powerful roles in easing or preventing their congregations’ absorption of disinformation, fear and even hate. In Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe ruled for 37 years and his political machine remains in power, popular mistrust of official information on the COVID pandemic has been strong. China for years allied with Mugabe’s rule, and now many Zimbabweans fear the vaccine that China’s government donated to Zimbabwean authorities.

The COVID crisis recently helped lead Zimbabwe’s religious leaders to form a comprehensive interfaith alliance, the Zimbabwe Interreligious Council, said the Rev. Kenneth Mtata, who heads the Zimbabwe Council of Churches. After Christian and Muslim clerics formed the council in November, the government and United Nations quickly recruited its members to help strategize ways to persuade citizens to accept vaccines and other public health measures. A key focus, Mtata told USIP’s iftar audience, was disinformation. “We had to be involved a lot in awareness-raising regarding COVID-19 because there were many conspiracy theories … raising anxieties and fears,” he said.

Interfaith Groups Confront COVID

Roth, Mtata and other USIP partners told the iftar’s audience—religious and secular peacebuilders, diplomats and others—how interfaith projects are helping their countries confront the COVID pandemic:

In Indonesia, interfaith support for vulnerable women. Wiwin Rohmawati, an Islamic scholar and interfaith leader in Yogyakarta, notes that Indonesia’s women face greater burdens than men, as do women worldwide. The agency U.N. Women found 57 percent of women (and 48 percent of men) suffering heightened stress and anxiety. With COVID’s disruptions, women lost more jobs and income, faced greater burdens of unpaid work, and suffered an increase in violence. Rohmawati’s organization, Srikandi Lintas Iman, named for a heroine from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, has provided practical help, including food supplies. It organizes women from disparate religious faiths to form online support groups that underscore the commonalities of women’s experiences whether they come from Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Confucian or indigenous religious communities, Rohmawati said.

Iraq: In a land of minorities, the power of non-discrimination. William Warda is a longtime interfaith activist in Iraq, where Mesopotamia—the region watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is both an ancient cradle of religions and a current patchwork of them. He co-founded the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, he said, “to promote coexistence and cooperation” among religious communities that include Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Sabean-Mandaeans, Kakais, Bahais and others. When the government imposed “a total lockdown of the economy to stop COVID, it caused a lot of harm” to day laborers who suddenly lost all income, he said. His group “distributed food baskets to the poor regardless of their beliefs,” Warda said, and sent teams to clean and sterilize churches, mosques, hussainiyats and other places of worship. The results reflected an enduring truth—that human outreach across a divide resonates with special power in a moment of crisis. Iraqis “were very happy to see that we were working for all people, without discrimination, because this is a critical human issue,” he said.

In the United States, feeding the hungry. Imam Talib Shareef leads Masjid Muhammad, a mosque in the heart of Washington, DC that partnered with USIP in raising funds through the iftar to distribute food to local families in need. The mosque’s years-long food-sharing program has ballooned amid the pandemic “because we’ve been able to partner” with other faith communities, Shareef said. Seeing people’s hesitancy or mistrust around COVID protective measures, the mosque has become a vaccination site to encourage Muslims and other religious adherents to be inoculated. Like Warda, Shareef highlighted the emotional power of interfaith outreach. “The religious labels just seem to go away” when disparate faith communities “come together to help each other,” he said. “We see human,” tapping into “our natural human sensitivities for each other, because after all, we are part of each other.”

Sri Lanka: dialogue to heal scars of war. In a nation still wounded by 25 years of civil war, Dishani Jayaweera, a Buddhist activist, left her job as a lawyer to help found the Center for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation in 2003. The center promotes dialogues—both among religious leaders and among residents—from children to elders—in local villages. Sri Lanka’s desperate need for that dialogue is illustrated by continuing tensions and notably the 2019 bombing of churches and hotels in Colombo by Muslim extremists. In the face of COVID, Jayaweera said, her center has guided partners from Sri Lanka’s many religious communities—Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians—through dialogue on “what messages God or nature” is delivering to humans through the pandemic. The center applied the dialogues in training “youth, women and religious leaders as healers and connectors” among Sri Lankans as they struggle with the illness.

Indonesian Muslim and Christian women gather for an iftar meal and dialogue—before COVID. (Srikandi Lintas Iman)
Indonesian Muslim and Christian women gather for an iftar meal and dialogue—before COVID. (Srikandi Lintas Iman)

Building Peace Through Ramadan

The iftar was USIP’s eighth annual such gathering, held during Ramadan, the month in which Muslims fast during daylight hours to re-commit themselves to the religious duty of caring for those in need. The stories of USIP’s interfaith partners reflect “courage and creativity,” said Lise Grande, USIP’s president. “When many religious groups have been used as scapegoats and falsely blamed for the virus, we’ve seen religious leaders reach out to different faith groups, overcome tensions, and work together to create shared solutions to shared challenges.”

Grande thanked USIP’s partners in organizing the iftar: the Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the World Turkish Business Council, the nonprofit organization Islamic Relief USA, the American Pakistan Foundation, Moore Afghanistan, Rafat and Shaista Mahmood, and the event’s honorary co-host, Ambassador Roya Rahmani of Afghanistan.

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