This article is part of an interdisciplinary project involving social sciences, public health and religious studies on the situation of faith communities during the Covid-19 crisis in Ituri and the north of North Kivu province. The project was validated by the ethics committees of the University of Edinburgh and the Université Anglicane du Congo and funded by an emergency grant from the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Two other articles from this project have been submitted to social science and public health journals. They cover two aspects related to our paper: (1) faith community members’ conceptions of Covid-19, its origins, and its meaning  and (2) faith community engagement with public health messages about Covid-19 . We will refer to these in due course.
The project was built on previous research by Congolese and foreign team members on faith and health in the region [39, 40]. Given the health and security situation, most data collection was done closely with researchers linked to the Université Anglicane du Congo and living in Bunia, Oicha, and Kasenyi. This community base was an asset in reaching respondents but may also lead to potential biases (see below). Three types of data collection need to be distinguished.
The first is the observation of the health and security situation during the period from March 2020 to June 2021. Members of the research team took note of developments in local Covid-19 measures as broadcast on local and national radio. They also took note of key developments in the life of faith communities through direct observations in places of worship outside of the lockdown period and via telephone and social media exchanges (WhatsApp and Facebook). These observations were discussed at regular intervals, two to four times a month, with the international researchers and were used to refine the research hypotheses.
The second component was a series of semi-structured qualitative interviews conducted directly face-to-face with 21 religious leaders (interviews, see Table 2), health officials (4 interviews in the Bunia health zone), and members of faith communities (3 focus groups). Most interviews were conducted in December 2020 and February 2021 (with additional interviews with the general population in July 2021). These more in-depth interviews form the core of our analysis.
Religious communities covered by the study (with number of interviews)
Communities that manage clinics and hospitals
Communities that do not manage clinics and hospitals
Roman Catholic Church (2)
African and independent churches (Obumu, Chrisco, Combat Spirituel, Independent)
Anglican Church (2)
Revival churches (3)
Sunni mosques (3)
Lam-Te-Kwaro (ancestor worship)
CECA 20 (protestant) : Communauté Évangélique au Centre de l'Afrique (3)
Other Protestant churches (2)
Finally, the third part consisted of presenting and discussing our preliminary findings with 11 religious leaders (Catholic, Evangelical, Anglican, Muslim, Pentecostal, Revivalist) on 29 June 2021.
The introduction to the second and third parts of the research emphasised the researchers’ religious and medical ‘neutrality’. However, the name of their university and the biomedical background of some of them does not exclude that the interviewees were more inclined to make their discourse religiously and ‘biomedically’ correct. We focused the interviews on lived experiences rather than impressions to ensure data quality. We triangulated the main statements with observations and other sources such as the media.
There exists no precise census of religious denominations in our research area. Still, our selection of religious leaders and the population covers the denominations most visible in the public space. Table 2 distinguishes between two groups, those that have clinics (in each case, we also interviewed the head of the medical service) and those that do not, including the revivalist churches and the ancestor cult, which have developed a strong discourse on faith healing. There is no reliable data on worship attendance, but it is accepted that Catholics make up the majority of the population, followed by Protestant churches. The new (revivalist and independent) churches have a growing audience, while Muslims are a historical minority with a relatively stable membership.
The thematic analysis presented below is based primarily on the transcripts of the interviews and workshop. Passages dealing with the relationship between faith communities (or religion more generally) were systematically identified and then further divided into sub-categories according to the theme. The categories and sub-categories correspond to the sub-sections of the results section. The results were then discussed with the whole team and confronted with observations that added nuance and detail. We indicate either in the text or in square brackets the affiliation of the people quoted and the source (interview or workshop), using the general categories in Table 2. Research participants have agreed to be identifiable.
The first part of this section describes the religious leaders’ experience of and reaction to State-imposed Covid-19 measures. Our interviews, workshop, and observations all highlight a sense of shock provoked by the mandatory closure of places of worship –a corollary of the lockdown measure imposed in the DRC (and most countries in the world). We describe how lockdown has been experienced and rationalised by religious leaders and communities. The second part describes the ‘coping strategies’ put in place by religious groups, while the third returns to the heart of our question: how the relationship between religious groups and health authorities (and the state) has been affected by the pandemic experience.
1. The closure of places of worship: a double bad surprise
The obligation to close places of worship during the first lockdown was unexpected for all religious leaders and their communities. The Anglican Diocesan Medical Service called it "a big surprise because it has not happened for years". Although political and administrative authorities had sometimes coerced specific) churches to close in the recent past, the compulsory closure of all places of worship had not happened before.
The closure generated substantial anxiety among religious communities, especially those whose liturgy and prophetic preaching emphasised the “end times” of the world because of sin. Their initial reaction was fear with the sense that the pandemic and, even more so, the closure of worship places signalled the beginning of this prophecy realising. As an Evangelical leader explained during a workshop:
"A lot of people were talking. Christians were talking a lot; some said this is the end of the world because this was the first time people stopped praying [to be understood as “stopped visiting places of worship”]. It’s something we had never heard before.”
At the same time, it is also evident in our data that religious leaders are aware that they are subject to the temporal power of the government [workshop, Catholic, 1] and that opposing the closure of places of worship was not a choice. The leader of an independent revivalist church in Bunia, the Ministère Chrétien du Combat Spiritual (the Christian Ministry of Spiritual Combat), explained that: "when the number one in the country says something, we must only submit. We submitted to the demands of the President; everyone prayed at home, everyone was at home." Another workshop participant, a member of an Evangelical church, agreed while also sharing a feeling of incomprehension: "the Bible tells us to respect the established authorities, and they gave orders. We should also follow it because it is the word of God. But we didn’t understand things very well.”
Other feelings emerged after initial surprise and fear, ranging from acceptance to outright indignation. Feelings were not consistent along denominational lines. At one end of the spectrum, some leaders described closures as excessive and potentially counterproductive. Their resentment drew on three different arguments.
The first was the depiction of the lockdown (and related closure of places of worship) as an unfounded and disproportionate response, as Covid-19 was not seen as a danger big enough to require such measures. "Some measures are not appropriate, for example, closing churches altogether and encouraging people to pray personally –that was really hard, that was fearmongering" explained an Anglican leader at the workshop.
The second was a criticism of the consistency of the government’s response. Some interviewees called for the closure to apply to all sectors. They pointed out that churches are “places of respect”, unlike markets, which were not closed. "In church, you respect things, but when you get to the market, you are forced in contact with friends, so I found that these measures have not been contextualised to our situation, to our environment here", explained a Catholic priest.
A third argument suggested closure was an attack on the power and value of the Christian faith. “The Church”, explained one Catholic priest,” deplored the closure of the churches because faith cannot be confined". At the Anglican Diocese of Beni, for example, our respondent explained that it was “an exaggerated measure because it prohibits Christian ceremonies, including various celebrations such as means of intercession”, an idea echoed by many of our respondents who emphasised the importance of prayer and God in the fight against Covid-19. A CECA 20 (Evangelical) representative explained that: "in [his faith community] truth, we were astonished. We know that it is God who can solve everything". Another workshop participant, a Catholic priest, explained the reasoning of many leaders:
"When the church is closed, it is the church of God that we pray to [that is closed]. It is God who is above all, and he is the one who can help us fight this scourge, but we are forbidden even to pray..."
Other religious leaders, while regretting the closure of places of worship, accepted the necessity of the action. A Muslim leader elaborated: "we respected these measures because it helped us Muslims understand the danger of this disease". These leaders indicated that their congregations had the same mindset. For example, one of the Evangelical leaders explained:
"There were a lot of comments [about closing the church] but those who understood [...] they understood that it is a necessity, to limit the number of people who come to worship to avoid the big crowds that could easily spread disease and gain a lot of people [...] The church understood that this is good."
While the closure was a frustration, such religious leaders also saw it as having a purpose. As a leader of a Protestant church explained: "we were really surprised to have to tell people not to pray [in church], but we accepted for health reasons. However, this does not prevent prayer." The leader of the Rehobot church (revivalist) added: "lockdown cannot affect the Christian life of a Christian [because there is still] family prayer and personal prayer time". The last element is crucial: the dissociation between place of worship (and gathering) and prayer appears to be the element that allows many religious leaders to make peace with church closure. For some communities, especially within the revivalist churches, Covid-19 was sometimes even presented as an opportunity. Indeed, as the leader of one of these churches explained: “in our church, we advise people to make a radical confession”, he then continued explaining that the Covid-19 lockdown effectively created conditions more conducive to such confession.
In general, it seems to have taken Covid-19 cases in the community for religious leaders to accept the government’s decision (which did not mean they had not already complied with its instructions). For example, the head of the Christian Spiritual Warfare Ministry explained:
"When the churches were closed for us, people said, “we have entered hell”, but we didn’t understand that hell is after some time, when we saw the disease appear in our community, in the neighbourhood. That’s when the government was proven right.”
This contact with the disease is sometimes not enough. Data from the workshop illustrate how, for some, defiance remained more than a year after the start of the pandemic. They still expressed doubts about the virus’ biomedical nature , which affected their involvement in the Covid-19 response:
"Although the friend testified, he was a victim of the disease, he also pointed out somewhere when we see all that surrounds Covid-19, we also ask: does Covid-19 really exist? Because lately we have been following on social networks in Uganda very close to us here next to us, they were burying sand in coffins so for me who saw that and for those who are in Kampala who testified even that they buried, in the coffins they were burying sand, can I really accept that Covid-19 exists?" [Workshop, Independent Church, 3]
These doubts do not mean that the principle of closing places of worship and imposing measures is not respected, but rather that the commitment of some remains superficial and certainly not spontaneous or in line with their perspectives. As we show below, respect for State authority plays an important role.
The second lockdown
The decision not to close churches during the second lockdown was met with relief by many religious leaders, though some suggested that the closure of schools but not places of worship appeared contradictory. One Muslim leader in Kasenyi explained:
"Why only close schools? When the decision came down, we were surprised that the churches continued as normal but not the schools. Why?"
On the Catholic side, at the Brazza church, a leader challenged the coherence of public action:
"Among the various measures recommended by the government in the fight against Covid-19, there are some that are beneficial and others that are not. It’s full of contradictions, so without taking into account the consequences in the future, for example, when we have to close the schools, we haven’t closed the market."
2. Maintaining faith community during lockdown
Faced with a strict lockdown order, many religious leaders spoke of the need to "continue with their pastoral mission". This protestant pastor continued:
"Some condemn the state, others say that Satanists have prepared some things to destabilise the church, but I also think that the church has also made other arrangements in relation to its life, it can continue to supervise Christians and do other things" [interview, Protestant, 11].
Many churches adapted to the challenges. For example, some mobilised or created "many small cells throughout the city”, as [interview, CECA 20, 18]. They explained, “we realised that in the church there are a lot of people capable of running the cells, a lot of people capable of teaching, preaching and taking responsibility". In Catholic churches, prayer groups meeting once or twice a week, the ‘living church communities’ (communautés église vivante), were active before the pandemic and mobilised. Some Protestant churches, such as CECA-20, also had a similarly active network. It was less the case for the Anglican Church, where cells existed in name but were not very active (as the whole congregation would usually meet). These cells were, however, revived with the pandemic. With the pandemic, the cell group model –typically led by a layperson appointed by the local church committee– was also be taken up by other Protestant churches, such as the African Inland Church (AIC), and even by some revivalist churches.
These cells, which are small enough to operate within the Covid-19 rules or work remotely, maintained religious life during the lockdown. They also took an active role in Covid-19 sensitisation, often basing their action on religious ideas, since, as a cell leader explained: "our pastoral mission is also an educational mission". The person in charge of the CECA 20 medical service further developed this point:
"Prayer is good, it is biblical, but the churches must take real, concrete measures and take measures that can save the Christian population, that is to say, teach their population to work, teach the Christian population to take barrier measures specifically within the framework of this disease, which is infectious, and teach Christians also to take responsibility for intervening in some other way.”
Cells also played another essential role for churches: they helped collect the offerings that pay the church’s running costs and its leaders’ salaries (sometimes at the risk of exploiting congregants who are already in precarious situations; ). Lockdown disrupted the economic model of churches dependent on offerings from the faithful during worship, but soon offerings were given to cell leaders, who passed them on to church leaders. Other mechanisms, such as donation boxes placed outside churches or even offerings via mobile money, were also implemented.
In some groups (Protestants (CCC), Catholics, and Muslims), community radios were used to encourage offerings (or tithes and thanksgivings) and to explain that they enable religious leaders to pray for the faithful (and, in particular, those who are generous). In addition, the radios were used to keep in touch with the congregation and broadcast awareness messages about Covid-19. In the words of UEA CECA 20: "the Lord gave us the grace to reach as many members as possible through radio RTK [...] spiritually we were always together, the teachings were given through RTK, the worship was done through RTK, that was a great opportunity for us because of the radio". Social media appeared in our research but was cited as a nuisance –a source of ‘fake news’ that is difficult to combat– more than a useful channel used by churches.
In practice, the army and police did come and check that places of worship were not being used, and our research found no evidence of meetings taking place. Nevertheless, these actions reinforced the idea of churches being coerced, as explained by a representative of an independent church:
“people from the security forces started to chase people, it’s like the church leaders have sinned [...] so I think with this, the church leaders just ‘consumed’ [consommé, endured] and accepted, complied with what the government had decreed”.
This element is essential and explains the ‘acceptance’ of the closure of places of worship described in the previous section and work with the government described in the next section. The idea of enduring –i.e. being subjected to the (health) authorities rather than feeling fully responsible and involved– is fundamental. We will come back to it.
3. A change in the relationship between the health system and religious denominations?
Business as usual
For the four denominations who also provide medical services –Muslims, CECA20, the Anglican Church through its Medical Service and the Catholic Church through Caritas– medical work in times of Covid-19 was a natural extension of their important role in the public health system in Ituri. “The church has always worked alongside the health system [government] to help the population", explained the Caritas official in Bunia. Interviews with health officials confirm this impression: "[with Covid-19] nothing has changed regarding the church health structures" for an official in the Bunia health zone. Covid-19 is neither the biggest problem nor the most urgent one for these faith-based health facilities. It is easy for the health facilities to follow the protocol of the health authorities - which, unlike other issues such as family planning, is not subject to any controversy or difficulty.
In addition to this role, local leaders of these four faith groups explained that they sought to prevent and reduce the burden of Covid-19 beyond their own health facilities by working with their faith communities. They explained that they provided handwashing facilities for their followers and raised awareness of anti-Covid-19 behaviours. For example, one Muslim leader explained that "yet not enough is being done here [against Covid-19], so the religious authority is going to get involved, I know that it is listened to a lot, it is listened to in the city as well as in the territory [in rural areas]”. There was coherence in the discourse of each of the four largely biomedical service providers, which centred on the relation between faith, respect for the Covid-19 measures, and respect for the authorities. The person in charge of the Medical Service of the Anglican Diocese of Beni explained: “Our church has contributed to raising awareness about respect for the barrier measures, encouraging the faithful to remain in the faith and to respect the national authority”. In practice, anti-Covid-19 messages are relayed by religious leaders but also often integrated into worship: "in every prayer, even if it is only for a few minutes, we tell our faithful about some of the measures decreed by the Congolese government, concerning Covid-19, and also practising it" [interview, Muslim, 1]. However, this does not happen without clashes; we have already explained the confusion in relation to the rationale behind Covid-19 measures, and a representative of the Catholic Church did not hesitate to report that he sometimes felt "betrayed by the government, which is supposed to make things clear to people".
The majority of religious leaders interviewed said that they had worked in line with the message of the health authorities, and the same four measures were described as the core of their communication efforts towards the public: wearing masks, hand washing, checking temperature, and physical and social distancing. Except for the mask, these measures are similar to those during the Ebola epidemic.
On the side of religious leaders whose denominations do not organise biomedical services, there is an awareness of playing an important role and somehow doing the State and the authorities a service in the fight against Covid-19. This idea is visible in the Protestant churches, as, for example, at the Christian Ministry of Spiritual Warfare: "the role [of the church] was just to keep reminding Christians not to forget that there is a measure that was taken by the government and that Christians must respect". In the same vein, a CCC official explained that the church must "also help people to understand and [...] and put into practice the measures taken by the state".
The anti-Covid-19 measures are also used by some religious leaders, in particular revivalist leaders, to convey a message: the need to follow the rules –including those of the government–to stay on the right moral and religious path. A Muslim leader developed this idea: "the main thing is to teach the government to teach people to be serious in life, to fear sin because sin attracts all sorts of diseases". At Chrisco, an independent church, the same approach is rephrased in biblical terms: "The Bible also says that we must know how to render to others what belongs to them and also render to God what is God’s! For we must respect the authorities in our country if the church is to move forward”. Thus, faith organisations are presented as a model of civic-mindedness, crucial in times of pandemics. In the words of the head of the medical service of the Anglican diocese of Beni: "the role of the church is to be a model of respect for the barrier measures, the measures given by the Ministry of Public Health".
Depoliticising the discontent
This task of promotion is not necessarily easy. Previous research has already highlighted the extent to which there is a distrust of the State and politics in the region, which is seen as an important part of acute security and health problems [6, 42]. As the Comico representative in Bunia explained: “to convince them [the population/congregation], we say my dear, this [respecting the Covid-19 measures] is not political. Don’t call it politics, it’s too hard; there are already cases when you go to the different hospitals”. For these religious leaders, working to promote the government’s measures means first of all "depoliticising" the issue and showing that the pandemic affects everyone, which is far from easy in a context where the disease is only slightly visible and where some in the congregation are in clear opposition to the government. Anecdotal interviews with members of religious communities of different genders, ages and social positions confirm a general discourse towards the State and health authorities that are often more critical than that of their religious leaders. "The corona of 2021, which corona?" was the answer given by a leader of a Protestant church in Bunia (without a medical service) at the time of the workshop. This depoliticization is all the more necessary because here too, there is a feeling that the State is not fulfilling its part of the contract: "I think the religious have done their part, but the government had not organised training as such" explained a pastor of a Protestant church without a medical service.
Among religious leaders, the feeling that the authorities have not well supported them –that awareness-raising has not been accompanied by the means to take care of the sick and suspected cases– is widespread. It is indeed easy to understand, given the means available on the ground. It raises the fundamental question of the value of awareness-raising when the means to fight against Covid-19 (screening, treatment, and vaccines) are minimal. Religious leaders are then left with an impression of powerlessness, as a CECA representative explained:
"All religious denominations are also struggling in this sense [awareness raising]. Because even to relay, to popularise, it is as if we are sending people to hell. You popularise but without really accompanying them in the consequences of the measures."
At a different level, there was also a general impression that religious leaders had worked to spread a message that they did not, in fact, fully understand when the (perceived) low prevalence of the virus during the period under study required significant persuasion efforts. The workshop revealed significant misunderstandings about Covid-19, which religious leaders were aware of, as a CCC pastor explained:
"We must first clarify [that the government gives quality information to religious leaders] so that people understand the information, the origin of the disease and the medicines that can cure the disease. [Otherwise] these are confusing things.”
Another participant in our workshop, still affiliated with the CCC, agreed:
"We need to have a clear message about the origin of the disease, the mode of transmission, and as there is no disease yet what we can do to prevent ourselves but also to see how to protect others. And also show the danger, that is to say, the seriousness of the disease. You know, at one time there was Ebola and people were talking about it. When they also saw […] where we were housing the sick, people really felt that the disease exists. That is to say, we must have a message that removes this ambiguity, the somewhat obscure things about the disease. And then maybe the population can understand.”
The problem is more about explaining the logic of the containment and Covid-19 measures than the measures themselves, as handwashing has a direct echo in the scriptures of the Koran and the Bible, as a pastor of an independent church explains:
"Leviticus 13:46: ... This is confinement. He will be confined alone as our pastor Grandpa and his family were confined. ... The others were also affected. If you also read in exodus 30:18–21 you will find there is a problem with hand washing. You have to wash your hands. If you read again Leviticus 13:4–5, it is still the same thing. That is containment. Isaiah 26:20, lockdown always."
Which space for dialogue?
The question these new actors raise is also about the space for interaction between (health) authorities and religious leaders. The data we collected suggests that the space that exists is tenuous. On the one hand, the denominations that have health structures keep their usual contact with the health authorities, who even generally consider them to be "more conscientious" than the State structures (interview health zone, 2). On the other hand, however, direct interactions between other religious leaders and the health system are described as ‘normal’ and unchanged by health officials who speak of a health system open to all and with its own community participation structures such as community health workers and health facility committees that allow messages to be relayed. The relationship as described by the few actors in the health system and the ‘newcomer’ religious denominations is mostly unidirectional. The religious leaders are frustrated that they “cannot really talk” to the authorities. The health system is not, in general, the most open to bottom-up initiatives, and this situation is exacerbated in a tense security context, but it is also linked to the fact that these "newcomer" religious denominations have understandings of health that clash with the biomedical health system’s :
"I think the situation is there because the religious denominations also see spiritual health, and then the public health ones also see physical health, so they both had to agree. If there is a problem that affects physical health, those who see spiritual health should also be interested in order to put things on track," explains a pastor of a Protestant church without a medical service.
Coordination structures do exist, however, at least on paper, through the coordination platforms set up by humanitarian organisations. The typical example cited is the multi-sectoral structure set up with the Ebola response team, which is chaired by a Catholic priest and aims to create this link but, as one observer of this platform explains: "with Ebola this structure worked very well, because there was a token (jeton de XXXprésence) at each meeting; this is not the case with Covid-19”. The challenge identified through our interviews seems to be for the space to exist without and beyond aid organisations and the financial incentives they introduce.