Addressing the Covid-19 Pandemic: Religions for Peace and UNICEF in Partnership

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with an unprecedented global challenge, touching every community in every nation of the world. The pandemic is causing systems of work, education, finance and domestic lives to grind to a halt, affecting nearly every aspect of people’s lives.

Religions for Peace (RfP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), are joining forces to launch a global Multi-Religious Faith-in-Action Covid-19 Initiative to raise awareness of the impacts of this pandemic on the world’s youngest citizens.

The Initiative reflects the unique and critical roles played by religious leaders and actor, in influencing values, attitudes, behaviours and actions that affect the development and wellbeing of the world’s children. The Initiative will be coordinated by the global partnership on Faith and Positive Change for Children, Families and Communities , which involves Religions for Peace’s Interreligious Councils, including senior leaders of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions in South East Asia, known as Religions for Peace Asia.

What follows is the first regional webinar of member bodies of Religions for Peace Asia and officers from UNICEF in discussing the Multi-Religious Faith-in-Action Covid-19 Initiative.

Religions for Peace and UNICEF in Partnership

This report summarizes a global webinar held on Monday, 20th April in a workshop flowing from the recently announced partnership between Religions for Peace International and UNICEF with the RfP leaders from East Asia and the Pacific. This was the first of seven planned webinars with regional interfaith leaders to be held in coming days. It was jointly facilitated by Dr. Kerida McDonald, a senior UNICEF executive, and Kyoichi Sugino, Deputy Secretary-General of RfP International. RfP Asia was led by the Deputy Moderator, Emeritus Professor Des Cahill, and the Secretary-General, Nobuhiro Nemoto.

On 7th April, during a month when various religious traditions are preparing to celebrate their major religious festivals, Religions for Peace International and UNICEF released a joint statement on the COVID-19 pandemic, which is touching every community in every nation of the world, causing ‘systems of work, education, finance and domestic lives to grind to a halt and wreaking unimaginable sickness and increasing death tolls’. Religions for Peace and UNICEF are working in collaboration with the Joint Learning Initiative of Local Faith Communities linked to Georgetown University in Washington DC; they wish to strengthen multi-religious action and community mobilization in pursuing the following aims and objectives:


  • Faith gatherings, rituals and services in keeping with the RfP-ACT Alliance Statement and WHO Guidance on religious mass gatherings, burials and rituals etc.
  • Honour international and national health authorities’ guidance on public gatherings, physical distancing and other critical matters of public health related to faith community gatherings, services and rituals such as funerals, marriages and births for the health and safety of religious followers while developing alternative pastoral approaches


  • Heightened focus on hygiene and sanitation in keeping with religious traditions and sacred texts that emphasise cleanliness as an element of holiness
  • Listening to children and families through organized spaces for dialogue online, through media and where permitted house-to-house, and within small group fora (keeping distance)
  • Intergenerational dialogue to give to girls, boys together with parents and communities to find solutions to issues surrounding the epidemic
  • Voices of faith and wider community engagement to inform local responses as well as national policy-making and programmes


  • All forms of stigma and discrimination associated with the transmission of the disease with active promotion of attitudes and behaviours to uphold the dignity and rights of all people


  • Active engagement of networks of religious communities including faith-based women and youth, in collaboration with local governance structures, to provide organized voluntary service in:
    • Spiritual and emotional care and support for parents, children, the elderly and those experiencing disruption and distress in order to provide a source of support, peace, comfort and hope
    • Positive age-specific and gender-responsive parenting guidance and support to families in relation to the health, development, protection and social and emotional wellbeing of children and people, particularly those in low-income families and those most vulnerable and hardest to reach
    • Youth-friendly communication and engagement including their support with more systematic use of technology and social media as a connective communication platform for communities during periods of physical distancing and beyond.

Dr. Kerida McDonald (a senior UNICEF executive) led off the workshop by saying that ‘we live in an incredible time and a time for reflection’. UNICEF wanted to cement its relationship with religious and interfaith leaders in addressing this unprecedented crisis, and take a further step in the 20+ year partnership with Religions for Peace.

Professor Des Cahill on behalf of RfP Asia welcomed all participants to the webinar, thanking UNICEF for taking this initiative. He then spoke of how Australia was doing well, certainly on the per capita figures collected by the John Hopkins University in Baltimore. Seventy persons had died. Thus the death rate in Australia was 0.24 deaths per 100,000 population, compared to Belgium (45.20 deaths), Italy (37.64), Spain (42.81), the United Kingdom (21.97) and the United States (11.24). The Australian government had moved fairly quickly in closing the borders, closing down non-essential business and introducing social distancing. Many employees were working from home accompanied by many online meetings. Very crucial has been the successful formation of a national cabinet composed of the prime minister and State/Territory premiers assisted by health experts, the first time since World War II. University classes were now online as were school classes. A major problem has been cruise ship passengers, and a formal inquiry is being conducted about how passengers were let off the Ruby Princess in Sydney without proper testing. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and governments have been offering job payment schemes at very great cost to offset the economic impact.

Nivy Balachandran, representing the Asian Pacific Youth Interfaith Network, spoke about the economic impact on young people as they often work in casualised positions, especially in hospitality. So their level of economic vulnerability was much higher. Across Asia, young people in some ways had some advantages because they are tech-savvy and have online friendships. The challenge was to get them to take COVID-19 seriously. Another issue is their physical and mental health and for them to stay interconnected.

The Myanmar representative reported that there had only been four deaths. She commented on the work of Religions for Peace Myanmar and the National Council of Churches in their encouragement of staying at home, and religious places of worship will remained closed until April 30th. Fighting was still occurring in the Rakhine State, and the religious bodies have begged both sides to cease fighting. Cardinal Charles Bo has played an important role in the whole process. Elga Sarapung, Director of Interfidei in Yogjakarta spoke about 616 deaths from 7,135 known cases in Indonesia, especially Jakarta. Interfidei had opened five solidarity kitchens in her city, especially for students living in dormitories away from home and others who have lost their income. The organization was working with doctors and nurses. All religious activities have generally stopped but there has been resistance from conservative Muslim leaders and people are buying online. Generally precautions were being observed. Dr. Phillip Widjaja from Surabaya spoke of how Indonesian Buddhists were working with the two major Islamic community organizations, NU and Muhammadiyah, both of which have over 30 million members.

In Japan, Religions for Peace every Wednesday at 1 p.m. has an online interfaith prayer service with different religious leaders, and the national chapter has been working with chaplains to encourage them to offer an online free counselling service. Rev. Nobuhiro Nemoto who has worked in refugee camps drew attention to the many who do not have access to the internet, and some do not even have a phone. There is thus the need to reach out to them physically through safe visitation. The UNICEF people mentioned how during the Ebola crisis a door-to-door information strategy was followed in Africa. Then there was the problem of people on the move as well as people in camps.

Then Dr McDonald spoke about the project named ‘Faith and Positive Change in Action for Children, Families and Communities (FPCC)’, targeting the situation of children and women and aiming to mobilize religious leaders, women of faith and interfaith youth. She remarked, “It is necessary to go beyond messaging and not to go back to merely messaging”. She spoke of the importance of a ‘heart and mind dialogue’. After the April 7th Joint Statement, the partnership decided on six main actions in the campaign:

  1. Development and release of national interfaith/faith messages by top leaders to religious followers, particularly around the holy days of the Passover, Easter and Ramadan
  2. Collection of information on knowledge, attitudes and practices to more systematically understand religious institutions and their preparedness and response to address the short-term and long-term effects of the pandemic
  3. The development, dissemination and local customization of a Global Thematic Resource Guide whose initial focus will be on
    1. Communication, misinformation, rumors
    2. Dispelling fear, stigma, discrimination
    3. Physical distancing, adaptations of religious gatherings and rituals, handwashing, hygiene
    4. Specific vulnerable groups and
    5. Preventing violence against children.
  4. Periodic regional webinars to be coordinated by RfP International and UNICEF HQ with inputs from religious experts and various other experts
  5. Digital/mobile engagement for exchange of information and engagement of communities and young people, especially through a package on the UNICEF’s Internet of Good Things (IOGT)
  6. Tracking, monitoring and documenting the results of the campaign through reports and case stories through the Global FPCC website linked to the RfP website

Action Four had been reached, and much work had been done on Action Three. UNICEF was working on six booklets for religious leaders and was also trying to identify areas of resistance. The rest of the 150 minute webinar was spent on various UNICEF and religious experts taking participants through the draft booklet contents with the booklets of the resource pack being seen as working documents. The first one is on COMMUNICATION with the objectives for religious organizations and their leaders to address

  • High levels of fear, uncertainty, loss and stress
  • The critical need for social isolation through physical health even though it creates loneliness and anxiety
  • The boredom

Religious leaders will be advised to establish new communication channels to maintain prayer circles, singing and scriptural study, to emphasize that generosity is a religious practice, to be positive and hopeful to calm fear, to organize specialists to train faith leaders through phone counselling and to realize that religious leaders will themselves be under much pressure in giving support. They were also advised to counter misinformation and rumours which give rise to heightened fear, failure to follow recommended practices, inadequate protection and increased distrust and to share only accurate information based on reliable sources such as WHO. Also it was necessary to understand stigmatization such as the lack of understanding, use of stigma language, stereotyping, denial of access and speaking out against false information. They were advised to establish phone trees and use text messages on iphones. UNICEF was getting reports on attacks and assaults on tracing and testing personnel.

Dr. Suprinya Bezbaruah, UNICEF’s South-East Asian Officer for Engagement and Co-ordination, advised on the adaptation of religious gatherings, rituals and burials. She emphasized the critical role because people turn to their faith and faith leaders for solace, ensuring their physical and spiritual wellbeing. It was necessary to go virtual, if possible, through livestreaming religious rituals, or keeping worshippers well apart, or considering to have rituals in the open air but making sure that the flow of people is well-regulated. Various practices must be adapted by not allowing the kissing or touching of devotional objects, pre-packaged individual servings of ceremonial food and to do ritual ablutions at home.

A representative from the African Council of Religious Leaders had been working with UNICEF and RfP in preparing a module about addressing vulnerabilities. Seven vulnerable groups have been identified:

1. Elderly and people with fragile health conditions
2. People living in extreme poverty
3. Pregnant women and children
4. People with disabilities
5. People experiencing discrimination
6. People experiencing homelessness
7. People on the move: migrants, internally displaced persons

For each group, the module makes a series of very practical initiatives for religious leaders which will be very useful when it is published.

Prepared by Emeritus Professor Des Cahill, Chair, Religions for Peace Australia. Email:


Joint Logo - Religions for Peace and UNICEF