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Turkey’s state religious body undermines anti-coronavirus efforts

Apr 8, 2020

By Pinar Tremblay

As the world goes through a deadly pandemic that is causing social disruption and economic loss, religion can be an essential source of individual comfort and communal solidarity. In Turkey, however, the Religious Affairs Directorate — Diyanet, the country’s main religious body that works directly under the presidency and coordinates most religious activity for the Sunni Muslim majority — has been embroiled in controversy over its response to the pandemic. At a time when fast-implemented public policies have been shown to be essential to saving lives, the Diyanet could have significantly helped Turkey battle the pandemic. Yet, Diyanet is under fire for not only failing to do so but probably even helping spread the outbreak to remote rural areas.

Diyanet is in the crosshairs over three main incidents. First among them is the umrah fiasco. Muslims from all around the world visit holy sites in Saudi Arabia throughout the year, not just during the hajj period. Those visits — called umrah — involve large congregations where social distancing is difficult. Most participants from Turkey are retirees over 65, who are considered high risk for the novel coronavirus.

All umrah visits from Turkey are coordinated through Diyanet and its affiliated institutions and approved travel agencies. As journalist Rusen Cakir explains, those trips, attracting tens of thousands of people from all corners of the country, are a significant source of income for Diyanet.

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