In my immigration practice, a good part of which involves asylum applicants, I’ve had plenty of experience representing victims of religious persecution.  The very first one that I encountered was a young man from Lebanon who, with his brother, had been persecuted because he was a devout Maronite Christian in a country and a region that was increasingly hostile to Christians.  He’d been kidnapped, threatened with death, doused with water and then beaten with electrical cords. 

A few years later, I represented a Baha’í from Iran, whose family had been persecuted as apostates — to the point where his father was denied a religious burial and the body was left out in a field to rot under the sun.

Then there was the case of a Muslim man who was being targeted by the Taliban because he was not enough of a fundamentalist, in that he believed in the education of young women and was a strong critic of the anti-Christian and anti-Western policies of the terrorist group.

And most recently, I represented a young Evangelical minister from Honduras who was threatened with death because she actively and openly preached against the gangs in her native country, using the word of God to dissuade young people in her hometown from joining MS-13.

All of these individuals have been granted protection by the United States government which, as a signatory to the International Convention on Human Rights, recognizes the inviolate and fundamental nature of the right to worship.  Deprivation of that right is considered one of the most egregious acts of persecution in the international community.

This should come as no surprise to Americans, who are taught from an early age that the protections for faith communities and individuals (both in their ability to practice freely and in the prohibition not to impose a “state” faith upon unwilling citizens) is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

I am describing these personal histories to provide context for the recent announcement by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that it will be suspending weekly masses, as well as all Holy Week celebrations in response to the Covid-19 epidemic.  While I am aware that other faith communities have taken a similar position and suspended their services or closed their houses of worship, as a practicing Catholic, I am most familiar with the policies of the Archdiocese.

I fully understand the reasoning behind the initiative, which was movingly explained by newly-installed Archbishop Nelson Perez in two separate statements over the past couple of weeks.  The most recent communiqué reiterated the church’s desire to remain vital and relevant in the lives of the faithful, but that these drastic steps were being taken to protect parishioners from the ravages of the Corona virus.  The statement announcing the initial suspension of public mass and the distribution of sacraments stated in part:

 “The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have developed guidelines to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. We should incorporate their strategies into our daily lives in an effort to protect ourselves as well as others, especially those most vulnerable, including the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems.

God is always by our side. He never abandons us. I invite you to join me in prayerful solidarity during this uncertain time. I remind you to keep your eyes fixed on the outstretched arms of Christ the crucified and Christ the merciful and to encounter others with charity and understanding.”

Those are comforting words, and to most people the idea that Christ is infinite and invisible is solace.  It is for me, as well. But there is also something fundamental about the ability to walk into God’s house, sit in the pews, and join in the communion of the sacraments with other Catholics.  The shared experience is powerful. I feel safe in saying that this is not an opinion limited to Roman Catholics.

To most people the idea that Christ is infinite and invisible is solace… but there is also something fundamental about the ability to walk into God’s house, sit in the pews, and join in the communion of the sacraments with other Catholics.

My work with victims of religious persecution has some bearing on my feelings on this subject.  The immigrants that I regularly meet have been prevented by their governments from practicing their faith in the open, without fear of retribution.  In the most egregious cases, they have been physically tortured for following the dictates of their conscience. And there are so many more in our world, who I have not encountered personally but whose stories I have heard, who have experienced even worse. At the very least, they have been censured.

For these reasons, we need to be very careful when we close churches, temples, mosques and other houses of worship.  We need to be extremely circumspect when curtailing the services and limiting the avenues available for people to obtain the sacraments or otherwise practice their faith in public.  Even when we are acting with the best interests of the respective faith communities, we need to be as conservative as possible in deciding when and how to limit access to churches.

Clearly, the Covid-19 pandemic warrants a radical reordering of our daily lives, in an attempt to limit the impact of the disease.  The words of Archbishop Perez acknowledge that the acts taken are being done to protect the most vulnerable.

We need to be extremely circumspect when curtailing the services and limiting the avenues available for people to obtain the sacraments or otherwise practice their faith in public

It is also important to note that unlike the cases involving my asylum clients, these are all voluntary acts and they are not being imposed by a governmental entity.  However, one cannot avoid the fact that pressure has been placed upon faith communities by the city and state governments to minimize public activities. While not a direct mandate to “shut down,” there is still an uncomfortable, albeit indirect, pressure upon the churches to shut their physical doors.

Many have correctly noted that God is not the sum total of pews, stained glass windows and stone arches.  I have been told that He is found in the quiet corners of the soul. This concept comforts the faithful.

But we need to be extremely vigilant, going forward, that we do not use this pandemic as precedent to automatically shut the doors to God’s houses, and suspend the celebrations and sacraments that bring our faith to life the next time that a serious challenge to public health or safety presents itself.

We are a nation that celebrates religious freedom.  Just ask my clients.

Christine Flowers is an immigration attorney specializing in asylum, deportation and family law. A lifelong Philadelphian, she has no plans to emigrate from her hometown. @flowerlady61

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