DiReSom

Diritto e Religione nelle Società Multiculturali/ Law and Religion in Multicultural Societies/ Derecho y Religión en las Sociedades Multiculturales/ Droit et Religion dans les Sociétés Multiculturelles/ Recht und Religion in Multikulturellen Gesellschaften/ 多元化社会中的法与宗教 / القانون والدين في المجتمعات متعددة الثقافات

by Stefano Picciaredda*

stefano.picciaredda@unifg.it

In the universe of religious worlds, reactions to the spread of the pandemic have been very different. As it has been observed,[1] there have been examples of underestimation, exploitation, or even radical denial of Covid-19 harmful effects. Interpretations based on millenarianism have also flourished. Some examples of such conceptions in Africa and Latin America, are examined in the following pages.

1. Two happenings in Cameroon

«L’archevêque garde secrète sa composition médicamenteuse, à laquelle il n’a pas encore donné un nom commercial», remarks a journalist of the DW, a German broadcast. The TV report talks about the Archbishop ofDoula, Msgr. Samuel Kleda, who choose not to reveal the composition of the herbal mixture he created, apparently  effective against Covid 19, and not to “baptize” it with a commercial name.[2] Since the spread of the news, the Archdiocese of Douala has become an address of Hope and has attracted thousands of people eager to obtain the new natural medication. In an interview with La Croix on April 28th, 2020, the prelate said he had been interested “in healing illnesses with the help of medical plants of the African pharmacopoeia for thirty years”. He started when he was the rector of a minor seminary, and continued to cultivate his passion even after his appointment as a bishop, first of Baturi and later of Douala. It is important to stress that Msgr. Kleda has never stated that he has found a treatment against Coronavirus, “because there would need serious studies to get to such a conclusion”. With a sense of responsibility, he carried on saying he had abstained from observing the symptoms of Covid 19 and from creating some treatments out of medical plants suitable to mitigate them, “and patients feel better”.[3]

The news has had a wide echo in the country and abroad. According to the correspondent of La Croix Msgr. Kleda’s recipe has raised great hopes in a country where health authorities are about to be overwhelmed by the multiplication of the number of cases”.[4] Many intellectuals and media have remarked the goodness of an “African response”. The latter has been compared to the Artemisia-based solution created by the President of Madagascar, another well-known anti-covid herbalist.[5] Meanwhile, in Cameroon, the evidence of healed or of improved patients is multiplying.  Something that should not surprise, because restorative and anti-inflammatory treatments – which have been proved not to be harmful – can certainly produce an improvement in the patient’s general conditions. This story should be related with a wider phenomenon context: some religious leaders insist on the need to abandon scientific medicine increasingly more. This is not a health-conscious movement that promotes natural care to decrease the use of allopathic medicine chemicals, rich in side effects. It is the systematic and radical request to the faithful to abandon all kinds of diagnostic means and pharmacological treatments prescribed and administered under medical control. The Christian who relies on a doctor shows a weak faith, he performs a “betrayal” towards the pastor and his ability, as an intermediary, to implement the thaumaturgical power of God: “C’est Dieu l’Unique Médecin” as Elisabeth Olangi Wosho loved to repeat. She is the founder of one of the largest awakening churches in the Congo Democratic Republic, the so called Ministère du Combat spirituel, now widespread also in Europe.[6]

In short, those who take drugs despise God and have no hopes of recovery, according to the pastors of the new churches of various denominations. This is not the case of Msgr. Kleda and of the Catholic Church of Douala, which has implanted and still maintains numerous health centers. But it is enough to take a few steps further, without moving from the second city of Cameroon, to find an example of such unscientific preaching. Franklin Ndifor, was a well-known 39-year old man from Cameroon. He was the head of the Kingship International Ministries Church and had run for the last presidential election in 2018. After the outbreak of the pandemic, he had presided over thaumaturgical prayer sessions in his Church, summoning covid-19 affected and laying his hands on them to invoke healing from God. Ndifor died on Saturday May 16th 2020, after a few days of suffering and worsening from difficulties. The coroner who examined his body ascribed death to Covid-19, and requested the intervention of sanitation and protection teams, to transport his body safely. His family locked themselves away inthe house to prevent Franklin’s body from being taken away. Meanwhile, the news, quickly circulated and attracted hundreds of faithful to the Bonaberi district. They gathered around his residence and began a spontaneous session of songs and prayers, to invoke the resurrection of the pastor. The same faithful did not let the doctors enter shouting that the pastor was not dead but “in spiritual retreat with God”,[7] and that he did not have to be buried.  During the day, the tension grew, and only in the evening, with the intervention of the troops and of special vehicles using tear gas, the authorities managed to disperse the gathering and allowed medical teams to enter the house after taking all the necessary measures for safety.[8] Journalists have reported the dismay and concern widespread among the families of the sick persons who had entrusted themselves to Ndifor. The event has attracted the attention of the international media, but many other cases took place away from the spotlight. The reality of the new churches, “neo-Pentecostal”, “of awakening”, or otherwise defined, constitutes, especially in Africa and Latin America, a galaxy in continuous development, with thousands of denominations, large and small, with a multinational extension or limited to a single suburban area. It is the so-called “Third Church”, which is, according to some observers, the image of the Christianity of the future.[9] In these churches, relationship with medicine is often characterized by distrust. “I was diagnosed with diabetes, but now that I have approached God I have discovered that diabetes is a spiritual disease. The drugs I was taking were of no use, only God heals”, said Deborah, a Congolese woman resident in Holland, to Julie Ndaya who interviewed her.[10] In sub-Saharan Africa, this kind of belief has led to dramatic consequences in the case of another pandemic, HIV-AIDS syndrome, especially when the most effective cure – the so-called tritherapy – has finally become available. Among the many witnesses, I have chosen the one dating back to a few years ago and relating to Uganda and its capital Kampala. The coordinator of the Baylor College of Medicine Children’s Foundation Uganda, who is treating over four thousand HIV-positive children and young people, already in 2010 reported the trend “among adolescents and their tutors to let their spiritual guides decide about their medical treatment against HIV / AIDS. Some of them spend every spare moment listening to the Gospel on television, reading the Bible or praying in church. Unfortunately it happens that when they realize that their ‘therapy’ is not working it is too late to go back to treatment with antiretroviral drugs “.[11]

2. Covid’s plot

With these trends, African public opinion is now strongly disoriented and frightened. The virus has started to run together with the fake news. On March 4th the authoritative weekly Jeune Afrique published a “top ten” of theories of fantasy that grew up around Sars-cov 2 and how to protect oneself from it: application of sesame oil on the body, consumption of garlic, conspiracy of pharmaceutical laboratories, virus spread via 5G network.[12] In April the editor of the weekly François Soudan returned to the news, wondering about the reasons why “these theories penetrate and influence the social media of the continent so fast, although this is the least affected, so far, by the pandemic”. For Soudan there is a twofold explanation. One is linked to the cultural peculiarities of the continent:

The disease, especially in central Africa, is often perceived as a weakness. When the pathology is transmissible, it becomes a stigma to be ashamed of. A testimony to this is the following announcement which appeared at the end of April on a Congolese website: “Following the death of his sister at the Makelekele hospital, Mr. […] specifies that the disappearance is due to a long and painful chronic disease without ties with covid 19, as people in bad faith insinuate. It is regrettable to speculate on the illness or death of a third party”. In the eyes of many Africans, coronavirus disease is a “bad death”. Its causes must be sought in curse, witchcraft, revenge, punishment and the night world.

A second reason has a more “global” vision: just like everyone else, Africans prefer

conspiracy, that makes simple things complicated, especially in the eyes of those who don’t have advanced education, an indispensable antibody against fake news about the virus. Adhering to a conspiracy theory removes the senses of impotence and dispossession that an unknown pathogen generates, for the benefit of a false impression of control, of knowledge and of being initiated into a hidden truth.

Soudan cites, as an example of conspiracy theories, elaborated “from above” the one of Donald Trump and Fox News, “according to which Covid 19 was conceived in the Wuhan P4 laboratory and then imported to the United States to bring its economy to ruin”, and the one “of the Chinese government, relaunched by the Russians, for which the virus, manufactured in the laboratory of the US Army in Fort Detrick, Maryland, was knowingly sown in Wuhan in October 2019 by CIA agents during a military sports competition, with the aim of undermining the Chinese economy”.

These theories have effectively circulated, and have been revived by authoritative personalities, at least towards the Catholic faithful. This is the case of the “Justice and Peace” Commission of the Mozambican Episcopal Conference, which, in a document of May 11th 2020, entitled Reflexão Pastoral sobre o Covid 19, denounced: “The shadow of the doubt about the origin of the virus and the possibility that it was created in laboratory for obscure and unmentionable purposes extends over the wonderful commitment of healthcare professionals around the world”.[13] The concerns are also about the “new vaccines that are appearing and the real goals they pursue”. Responsibility is identified in the pharmaceutical industries. They do not always deploy the same commitment made by health personnel, that is, by those who administer the drugs that those industries produce”. These considerations are not left isolated, like a sterile complaint, but immediately followed by an invitation to the concrete action of the faithful, which is worth reporting in full: 

The challenge: whatever is the origin of the virus causing the current pandemic, natural or artificial, the time has come to raise your voice all over the world against the pharmaceutical industry’s business on citizens’ health and to criminalize profits thus obtained. It is time to defend once and for all the dignity of every human being and the right not to be used as a guinea pig anywhere in the world. It is time to raise your voice to express well-founded suspicions about the creation of viruses in laboratory to be used as biological weapons or with the aim of achieving ever closer control over citizens. Closure of these laboratories should be demanded. It is time to live closer to nature and to trust that it can provide us with remedies against viruses, which it creates by itself to renew itself, instead of spending a lot of money on research that produces profit for the few, and poor health for many.

3. The Latin American setting

In Latin America, the phenomenon has turned to be particularly serious due to the high rates of the virus spread in some countries like Brazil. Indeed, notoriously close to the country’s main neo-Pentecostal Church, the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deu (IURD), the brazilian president has shared with them some of their positions in refusing medicine and scientific vision on that, as well as for the African case.[14] It is therefore worthy to remember IURD principles and their belief on the relationship between disease and faith. The rise of pathologies has always been interpreted as a sign of the presence of evil forces in man’s body. A place where physical and spiritual forces meet and where the figth between goodness and evil, God and devil, takes place. Indeed, as Eleonora Pagnotta remarks, “evil is the personification of the devil, who acts in the world, and every miracle, exorcism or conversion is considered a divine victory. Illness, sufferance, physical and mental diseases are caused by being possessed  by the daemon”.[15] The strength of IURD, similarly to other experiences of the neo-Pentecostal galaxy, is precisely the power of the Christian churches:  to see themselves as intermediaries between man and the divine power, in the duty of “freeing” the faithful from this “possession”. The central moment of the long worship sessions is precisely that of the exorcism, of the “live” miracle, which the faithful can witness, checking weekly the effectiveness of the community to which they have joined:

The IURD action takes the form of offering a spiritual treatment: each temple is defined by the organization itself as a “spiritual first aid”. In Iurd theology, the Holy Spirit performs healing miracles. […] To obtain the miracle it is necessary to awaken the faith of the believer through a series of acts and behaviors well defined by the Church: the economic contribution (tithing and offerings), attendance at the temple, the use of blessed water, the laying on of hands accompanied by anointing with oil. In theology, “healing” means leading people to salvation, removing them from the causes of evil, from demons. This is why patient care and exorcistic practices basically represent two sides of the same coin.[16]

As it is well known, President Jair Bolsonaro has long refused to adopt rigid containment measures, invoking conspiracy theories and asking people for spiritual resistance. His positions echoed those of the country’s best-known pastors, like the leader of the Igreja Mundial do Pòder de Deus Valdemiro Santiago (a former Iurd member), who declared that the virus constitutes a divine punishment, and of the founder and head of the IURD Edir Macedo, who states that the coronavirus – satanic work – has no power over the faithful who are not afraid of it.[17]

The closest pastor to the President and his spiritual guide, Silas Malafaia, has daily intervened against the lockdown, source, in his opinion, of social unrest that would cause many more victims than those caused by the virus. This time, however, the faithful have not let themselves be deceived. Some observers have noticed the half-empty temples – open despite the anti-gathering measures -, a situation that has forced the pastors to broadcast the sermons and conceive new systems to collect tithes. On the other hand, as Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, of the Catholic University of Sao Paulo, remarked in an interview, it is true that thanks to the pandemic they find themselves confronted with the reality of what the various Igrejas propose: “Fundamentalists see a world full of dangers and hidden enemies. In it, our only salvation from evil is strict adherence to norms and doctrines. The pandemic only serves to reinforce this terrifying vision of the world”.[18]

In the short and long term, however, by leaving aside the human losses they cause, this kind of visions could generate a dramatic decrease of consent and a more public awareness on both the current Brazilian presidency and the world of “maxi churches”. As the sociologist of religions Clemir Fernandes states, as a matter of fact, behindthe contrast to the containment measures, there is nothing but an economic concern. And a pastor like Malafaia “is a religious entrepreneur trying to protect his interests like everyone else”.[19] But in the Evangelical world, and in its robust parliamentary representation, there are a good number of doctors and politicians “who know a thing or two about science”, personalities who appear increasingly less willing to accept such a shamelessly irrational policy. The reality, as always, is something complex and contradictory. The IURD’s website offers an overview of research on vaccines and of Covid contrast treatments, without any criticism in the foreground, on the homepage[20]. Church leaders are currently much too warned about totally rejecting some scientific theories. On the contrary, a more nuanced attitude would be more appropriate. This is because later it may be easier to change it in a way or in another, according to the situation. 


            * Associate Professor of Contemporary History, University of Foggia (Italy)

[1] See P. Consorti, La religione e il virus, 09.03.20; C. Lupi, The Saffron Wave against Virus. The Hindu Nationalists and the Covid-21 emergency, 19.03.20; M. Introvigne, Lesson from the Shincheonji Case in South Korea: Monitoring without Scapegoating, 23.03.20. All in http://www.diresom.net

[2] Henri Fotso’s reportage for “Deutsche Welle”, 15.05.2020, in http://www.dw.com.

[3] Jean-François Channon Deenwo’s interview for “La Croix”, 28.04.2020. In www.africa.la-croix.com. See also F. Kouté, Samuel Kleda, l’archevêque de Douala, a-t-il trouvé la potion magique contre le coronavirus ?, in “Jeune Afrique”, 22.5.2020. 

[4] Cameroon has 16.157 people affected by Covid-19, and therefore is the seventh African country (on July 18th 2020). Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. For a general bibliography on Cameroon see M. DeLancey, R. Neh Mbuh, Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Cameroon, The Scarecrow Press, Lanham – Toronto – Plymouth 2010. About the crisis in the English-speaking regions see P.K. Bouopda, La crise anglophone au Cameroun, L’Harmattan, Paris 2018.

[5]  See E. Sari, Andry Rajoelina, VRP en Afrique du Covid-Organics, “Jeune Afrique”, 23.05.2020. 

[6] See J. Ndaya, «Prendre le bic ». Le combat spirituel congolais et les transformations sociales, Leiden, CEA 2008, p. 94. See also B. Meiers, Le Dieu de Maman Olangi. Ethnographie d’un combat spirituel transnational, Academia-Bruylant, Louvain-la-Neuve 2013.

[7] M. E. Kindzeka, Panic Grips Faithful After Cameroon COVID Pastor Dies, in www.voanews.com, 17.05.2020.

[8] J. Nkouam, Franklin Ndifor : des fidèles tentent de ressusciter le pasteur décédé du Covid-19. In www.bbc.com/afrique, 17.05.2020.

[9] H.J. Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century, Addison-Wesley Reading (MA) 1995; P. Jenkins, The Next Christendom. The coming of global christianity, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2003. About this phenomenon see P. Schirripa, Terapie religiose. Neoliberismo, cura, cittadinanza nel pentecostalismo contemporaneo, Edizioni CISU, Roma 2012; J. Robbins, The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, in “Annual Review of Anthropology” 33, 2004, pp. 117-143; S. Picciaredda, Il cristianesimo del futuro? Cenni storici e linee di sviluppo del pentecostalismo contemporaneo, in “Mantua Humanistic Studies”, IX, 2020, pp. 215-240. 

[10] Ndaya, op. cit., p. 21.

[11] Ag. Fides, Aumentano gli adolescenti sieropositivi che abbandonano gli antiretrovirali per curarsi da sedicenti leader religiosi. Inwww.fides.org, 09.10.2010.

[12] D. Glez, Top 10 des « fake news » sur le coronavirus, « Jeune Afrique », 04.04.2020. 

[13] The paper, not signed, was published on June 9th 2020, and it’s available on www.jupax.org

[14] About spreading of Pentecostalism in Latin America and Brazil in particular, see J.-P. Bastian,. Pentecôtisme et médiation politique au Brésil, in “Revue d’histoire et philosophie religieuses”, 96/1, 2016, pp. 57-70 ; R. Chesnut, Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford 2003; M. Russo, I protestanti brasiliani e la modernità, in R. Morozzo della Rocca (a cura di), La modernità e i mondi cristiani, Il Mulino, Bologna 2010.

[15] E. Pagnotta, Dal pentecostalismo al transpentecostalismo. Il caso della Iglesia Universal del Reino de Dios in Messico, Aracne, Roma 2016, p. 151.

[16] Ibidem, p. 152.

[17] Cit. from T. Milz, How evangelicals in Brazil are spinning COVID-19, in www.dw.com, 06.04.2020.

[18] Ibidem.

[19] Ibidem.

[20] www.universal.org

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