By Nicholas Rowan
The United Nations on Tuesday called on religious leaders to combat “inaccurate and harmful” messages that have spread about minority groups during the coronavirus pandemic.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “extremists and radical groups are seeking to exploit eroding trust in leadership and feed on people’s vulnerability to serve their own ends,” adding that religious leaders can play a “pivotal” role in providing counter messaging about how to help people during the pandemic. He encouraged leaders to fight persecutions against minority groups, as well as “to categorically condemn such acts and support shared principles of partnership, equality, respect and compassion” instead.
As the pandemic has spread around the world, many religious groups have become the target of extremism and persecution. Some of the worst violations have been in China, where Uighurs have reportedly been forced to continue working in factories during a citywide quarantine, despite the high risk of contracting the disease.
Uighurs who were quarantined have also faced discrimination, with Chinese authorities limiting their access to food and demanding payment for basic necessities, according to a March report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal watchdog agency. The same agency found deteriorating religious freedom in Iran, South Korea, and India, egged on by extremist groups using the pandemic to persecute minority groups.
The coronavirus pandemic has also sparked an increase in antisemitism. A report released Tuesday by the Anti-Defamation League found that incidents of anti-Semitism hit their highest levels in four decades in 2019 and are on track to keep going up this year.
The Jewish civil rights group counted more than 2,000 antisemitic incidents, with more than 60 violent assaults, more than 1,000 cases of harassment, and more than 900 acts of vandalism. The bulk of the incidents occurred in New York, where antisemitism often resulted in violence. The reported noted that more than half of the violent assaults were perpetrated within the city itself and that the majority of these were in Brooklyn, where a large population of Orthodox Jews lives.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the group’s CEO, said that the spike likely happened in 2019 because of a “normalization of antisemitic tropes,” as well as political instability. Greenblatt added that the group expects to see an increase when it counts incidents in 2020, since the coronavirus pandemic has prompted a sharp uptick in anti-Semitism.
In April, Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University in Israel released a report on worldwide antisemitism with similar findings. And like Greenblatt, the report’s author, Moshe Kantor, warned that the coronavirus has already negatively impacted the ways many people view Jews.
“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant rise in accusations that Jews, as individuals and as a collective, are behind the spread of the virus or are directly profiting from it,” Kantor said. “The language and imagery used clearly identifies a revival of the medieval ‘blood libels’ when Jews were accused of spreading disease, poisoning wells, or controlling economies.”
Fears of antisemitism during the coronavirus reached a fever pitch in the U.S. when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that he had personally shut down an Orthodox funeral that was violating his stay at home order.
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” he later tweeted. “I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.”
The tweet drew a negative response, with many accusing de Blasio of singling out Jewish people for criticism. The mayor later apologized for his tweet, saying that he meant the words with “love,” but “tough love.” De Blasio had previously stated that he would “permanently” shut down synagogues and churches if they resisted his orders.