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On 20 August 2020 the International Religious Freedom Alliance released a statement calling for religious freedom to be protected during the pandemic. The group, launched up by the US State Department and of which the UK is a member, says: “States should not limit the freedom to manifest religion or belief to protect public health past the point necessary, or close places of worship in a discriminatory manner.”

A factsheet released by the US Commission on Religious Freedom in March 2020 suggested that there were certain countries where the government or social response to the pandemic was hindering people from practising religion: China, South Korea, Iran, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Georgia, Italy and Tajikistan were mentioned.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, on the other hand, argue that religion was getting special privileges in the face of pandemic restrictions.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., we’ve seen government leaders and houses of worship seek exemptions for religious gatherings from public health orders that temporarily bar large public gatherings.

Americans United has participated in legal action in many US states, aiming to persuade judges not to grant demands for religious exemptions from public health orders for in-person religious gatherings.

Unfair restrictions on in-person worship and unfair exemptions are not mutually exclusive, however. Religious majorities are most likely to get special favours. It is religious minorities whose worship is most likely to be curtailed by restrictions, as the Alliance argues in its statement:

Members of religious minority groups are among the most vulnerable, and they have been subjected at times to verbal abuse, death threats, physical attacks, and discrimination in attempting to access public services, and in all too many cases, vital health services have been denied entirely.

We encourage governments to take proactive steps to ensure individuals in minority religion and belief communities are safe, protected, and receive health services in an equitable and non-discriminatory manner.

NGO Freedom House argued in May 2020 that state-sponsored religious discrimination was on the rise with the pandemic. The BMJ carried an article in June describing how India’s Muslims find themselves blamed for the country’s Covid-19 outbreak while in Pakistan, it is Shia Muslims from a Hazara background who are being scapegoated. That hinders the response to the pandemic:

In Cambodia, Buddhists are blaming Muslims. In Israel, Jews are blaming Arabs. Fear and misunderstanding are stoking hatred worldwide—and it’s harming the fight against the pandemic.

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