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'Even in this pandemic, I still have to do my job': Indonesia's Covid-hit religious leaders give hope to their flocks

AsiaOne - August 15, 2021

On July 28, Pastor Marselinus Monang Sijabat, the head of the St Lusia Church in Pakpak Bharat Regency in North Sumatra, Indonesia, began to feel decidedly unwell.

By August 2, the Catholic priest, 42, had received a double diagnosis – typhus and Covid-19.

Sijabat couldn't be sure where he caught the coronavirus; due to the nature of his work it could have been any number of places.

"Even in this pandemic, I still have to do my job," he said. "I am still going to serve my community because that is my vow, and I can't stop other people in turn from travelling to other places before they meet me."

In Indonesia, it is not unusual for members of the clergy to serve dozens of churches, often spread out across remote rural areas, leaving them highly exposed to the coronavirus. More than 200 Christian religious leaders are thought to have died from Covid-19 in Indonesia, which has recorded over 115,000 deaths and more than 3.8 million infections during the pandemic so far.

And it is not just Christian leaders. On the same day that Sijabat received his coronavirus diagnosis, Indonesia's Vice-President Ma'ruf Amin announced that 605 Muslim religious leaders had died from the virus, telling the nation their service could not be "rewarded with mere material things".

Despite the risks, most holy men don't see mitigating them as an option. Right now, their flocks need them more than ever.

"We have to give them support so they are not scared. And we have to be creative," Sijabat said.

Usually, Sijabat serves 15 churches in Pakpak Bharat, giving mass at a different one each Sunday. Nowadays, however, he performs Sunday mass only at St Lusia Church, albeit to a limited congregation and with strict health protocols in place.

He writes out the texts he uses in church so that worshippers stuck at home can benefit from them too.

One of the biggest issues Sijabat has faced during the pandemic is the remoteness of many of the churches under his care.

Many of his parishioners do not have smartphones, and internet access is patchy across much of Pakpak Bharat, meaning that switching to online services is not a possibility.

Faith in restrictions

For now Sijabat and many others like him must put their faith in the emergency restrictions that have been in place across much of the country since the end of July and are designed to limit social activities and travel including by closing malls and limiting dine-in options in restaurants.

The restrictions, which have been extended several times, are set to expire on August 16 or 23 (depending on the region) and follow a convoluted system in which different areas are assigned a level of severity that dictates the nature of the restrictions in place.

Java and Bali have been singled out for particularly tough restrictions after case numbers spiked in recent weeks.

In parts of Java and Bali, religious venues in areas identified as Level 4 may open with a maximum capacity of 20 worshippers. In other parts of the country, Level 4 areas may operate at 25 per cent capacity or with a maximum of 30 people. In areas identified as Level 3, religious venues may operate at 50 per cent capacity or with a maximum of 50 people.

Alwi Hasbi Silalahi, the head of the Muslim Students Association in North Sumatra, said it was not surprising that religious leaders had proven vulnerable to the coronavirus because they were frontline workers as far as their congregations were concerned.

"We have to be careful and remain alert as this virus doesn't recognise background, ethnicity, religion or nationality. Everyone has the potential to become infected," he added.

Nasier Husen, a documentary filmmaker based in Aceh, a semi-autonomous province at the tip of Sumatra island and the only province in Indonesia to practice Sharia law, said it was a myth that Muslim religious leaders had disbelieved or downplayed the severity of the virus.

"Actually, the Quran talks of plagues during the time of the Prophet Mohammed," he said, adding that Muslims were highly familiar with health crises quoted in scripture.

According to one of the Hadiths, the collected sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, "If the plague breaks out in a region, do not go there, but if you are already there, do not come out of it."

The quote has been employed by Muslim religious leaders throughout Indonesia to teach their congregations about the importance of health protocols.

Back in Pakpak Bharat, Sijabat has also been working hard to teach the community about issues such as social distancing. He has also cancelled his usual Sunday school classes and some of the other projects that the Catholic Church is working on in the local area. These include community sustainability projects such as making and selling honey and pineapple snacks.

After self-isolating for more than a week, Sijabat tested negative for the coronavirus and said that he accepted his illness. Indeed, he has turned it into a learning point for his parishioners.

"I know that they are so fearful of this virus and I feel that fear, which is why I will not stop being of service to them, but I will make sure that it is with strict health protocols in place," he said.

– This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

Source: https://www.asiaone.com/asia/even-pandemic-i-still-have-do-my-job-indonesia-s-covid-hit-religious-leaders-give-hope-thei