In isolation, religious communities reflect on the meaning of faith

This time of year is a sacred season when the path of faith weaves together the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

In Jerusalem, the ancient Roman paving stones of the Old City are usually an intersection of these three faiths, and the focus of prayers for more than 3 billion people who adhere to a belief in one God and whose holy books describe them as descendants of Abraham, the biblical patriarch. 

During this time of Passover, observants Jews would typically be rushing to prayers at the Western Wall before the seder where they’ll recount the 10 plagues from the Book of Exodus that befell Egypt and remember how God delivered the Jewish people out of slavery and into the Holy Land. 

On this Good Friday in Jerusalem, Christians would normally be walking and chanting prayers along the Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Sorrow,” where tradition holds Jesus carried the cross on the way to his crucifixion, and following the scripture that will guide them to Easter Sunday to celebrate the Resurrection and what Christians behold is a new covenant with God. 

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew wearing a protective mask is seen reading a prayer book in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim on April 4, 2020. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)


Charles Sennott speaks with Brian O’Donovan, host of A Celtic Sojourn on 89.7 Boston Public Radio, about Easter, Passover and the coming month of Ramadan and how the messages of these three Abrahamic faiths inform this moment of crisis.

As we approach the start of Ramadan, Muslims would usually be heading for the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem with their prayer rugs tucked under their arms to take part in Friday prayers for the coming holy month of Ramadan and the time of fasting, self reflection and prayer that comes with it. 

But this year is different than all others. 

The ancient warrens of Jerusalem’s Old City are largely empty now as the modern plague of the coronavirus cuts a cruel swath across continents, afflicting 1.5 million worldwide, taking 100,000 lives and wreaking havoc in the global economy. Most synagogues, churches and mosques have locked their doors in Jerusalem, and services are reduced or canceled in nearly every other corner of the globe as governments worldwide impose social distancing to curtail the spread of the virus. 

Religious rituals that normally bind us together in community and connect us across generations are now in this time of COVID-19 turning us inward, forcing us to observe in isolation. Jewish families are holding virtual seders and the recounting of the story of the plagues takes on a deeper meaning. Pope Francis will be live streaming his sermon from inside the Vatican this Easter Sunday and Christians all over the world are left to whisper prayers of the rosary in their homes rather than trace the stations of the cross on Good Friday. Muslims will be praying and fasting quietly in their homes as Ramadan gets underway on April 23. 

The GroundTruth Project has for many years reported on the force of religion in the world, for good and for ill, and now with these religious rituals coinciding with COVID-19 our reporting on religion seems to present a unique story line about the deeper meaning of faith, the quiet, interior reflection that can come with it, and perhaps the way in which faith can help guide believers through a difficult time to hold out hope that there is a better future. 

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is reflected in the window of an Arab home in the Christian quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

Beyond the billions who adhere to the Abrahamic faiths, there are of course more than a billion people who worship Hinduism in India, and Buddhism shapes the lives of a half billion across Asia and there are a myriad of other faiths and devout secularists and atheists. Different systems of belief will, of course, interpret this moment differently.

No matter one’s views on faith, it seems that so many of us are left searching for some understanding of the meaning of this plague and often forcing us to ponder how God could have allowed this pandemic to happen. It evokes questions about what guidance faith can provide on how to pull together to get to the other side of the pandemic’s deadly scourge. And for those searching, it seems worthwhile to ponder the practical wisdom and the spiritual messages that emanate from the world’s three central religions. So we’ve been dispatching reporters to the streets of Jerusalem, to Rome, to the Muslim world to be there on the ground to witness how this global pandemic is changing worship and challenging the faithful. You can follow their work in the coming weeks.

In a partnership with the Religion News Service, reporters Jonathan Harounoff and Menachem Wecker wrote about the meaning of Passover. They interviewed Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which identifies itself as the largest Jewish movement in North America, who offered a reminder that Passover can provide comfort in even the most painful of times.

“The Passover seder is exactly what we need to help us face this frightening moment with the threat of coronavirus looming over each of us,” Jacobs said by email.

“No matter how challenging circumstances have been for our people in history we have still found a way to remember the ancient deliverance from bondage to freedom,” Jacobs continued. “Even during the Holocaust the exodus narrative at the heart of Passover conveyed the message that no matter how dark the hour there always exists the hope of a better tomorrow.”

Palestinian Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, which is governed under the Palestinian Authority, said in his Easter email to followers, “The cross is a reminder that death does not have the last word, but that Sunday is coming; that life is stronger than death. We realize that there is life after coronavirus, but we will carry the scars of this pandemic with us.”

An Arab Muslim woman watches from a balcony as Christian pilgrims hold crosses on their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, traditionally believed to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, during the Good Friday procession and the Way of the Cross, in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday, April 22, 2011. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

For one Muslim cleric, the coronavirus has prompted a sermon with a startling title: “Thank God for the coronavirus.” 

But Omar Ricci, an imam at the Islamic Center of Southern California, one of the oldest and most prominent mosques in the United States, was cited in USA Today explaining what he meant:  “Thank God for this reminder that we are not in control and must always be dependent on God. Thank God for this reminder that we should be grateful for all things – for groceries, toilet paper, good health. Thank God for reminding us life is fragile, and “we had best appreciate the miracle and blessing that God has given us in creating us as souls.”

GroundTruth Founder Charles Sennott was based in Jerusalem as the Middle East Bureau Chief for The Boston Globe from 1997 to 2001. He was the author of The Body and The Blood: The Holy Land’s Christians at the Turn of a New Millennium and co-author of Cradle and Crucible: History and Faith in the Middle East