The day Whatsapp caught fire
As the arrival of Coronavirus sparks a blaze across social media, journalist Mary Joseph describes how SAT-7’s voice is being heard above the clamour while the country’s churches are silenced
Every few minutes I check my WhatsApp and find a list of messages that could either be text, pictures, videos or links – and all of them about Coronavirus.
There are humorous messages mocking the current crisis, supportive religious advice, be it Christian or non-Christian, vlogs and voice messages from unknown people giving advice, and others.
I’m trying to get used to this avalanche of hourly messages until the crisis is over, but what I find disconcerting is the spread of rumours and fake news at this time.
Quite often, a rumour circulates, and the government comes out with a statement denying it.
It’s easy for people to believe government statements, but when it comes to God, who can address people’s misconceptions about Him?
People of fragile faith find themselves in a dilemma, which is why SAT-7 is committed to spreading messages of hope and declaring God’s love to his people.
In God, Fear, Coronavirus, a special live interview programme last week, exclusively filmed by SAT-7, renowned Egyptian psychiatrist and apologist Maher Samuel answered viewers’ questions about God and the Coronavirus pandemic.
Questions about God’s faithfulness and love for people, about the effectiveness of prayer, and whether precautions matter more than faith were sent by viewers online for Dr Samuel to answer.
Many Egyptian youth have been sharing Psalm 91 on social media as a spiritual weapon against Coronavirus. But Dr Samuel said our safety doesn’t just depend on praying Psalm 91. “In the Bible God promises to protect us,” he said. “He protects us every day from many dangers that we don’t even see. Jesus says Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Samuel replied to those who are questioning God’s faithfulness and to those who blame Him for creating diseases. He stressed, “God is the source of all good. His pleasure is in His creation and our enjoyment of His gifts. God created nature for humanity. But we have destroyed nature through greed and violence. Diseases, viruses and many bad things have arisen from our abuse of nature.
“This isn’t from God,” he went on. “He created an excellent world for man, but man’s sinful nature is damaging the nature God created.”
In Egypt, many Christians are concluding that the virus must be a punishment from God, just like His acts of judgment in the Old Testament. Samuel disagreed: “Coronavirus is not a punishment from God. He is the source of all goodness. But man chose to isolate himself from God through sin and stepped outside of God’s protective power. This is the reason why many lethal diseases are killing humans,” he said.
The live interview clearly hit the mark. In the first four days it drew 156,000 views on Facebook and over 21,617 views on YouTube. The massive interest reflects a deep thirst for knowledge and an acute need for guidance and understanding of God.
“This interview made a difference for me and shed light on many topics and answered many questions I had. May God bless you,” one viewer commented.
Egypt has several thousand churches and over 100,000 mosques. Since last Friday (20 March) all have been closed. Some churches are streaming services online but with only the pastor and a handful of people present. The Egypt Council of Churches responded to the crisis by calling Christians to join in prayer on Tuesday (24 March) for two hours in the evening.
The decision to close centres of worship is one of many precautionary measures taken by the government as the number of Coronavirus patients increases and two senior generals in the armed forces die of Coronavirus.
Seeing continued gatherings of people and activities on the streets, the government put further restrictions in place, with effect from Wednesday (25 March). These include the closure of schools until mid-April, the cancellation of all flights in and out of Egypt, and a nightly curfew of all businesses, services and people from 7 pm until 6 am, including restaurants and cafes, with the exception of food stores and pharmacies.
On Fridays and Saturdays, the Egyptian weekend, there will be an all-day lockdown for all businesses and people. Fines for breaking the curfew begin at 4,000 EGP (£216) and could lead to imprisonment.
Amidst the upheaval and concern, SAT-7 continues to beam messages of hope and encouragement on-screen and on social media as people feel increasingly isolated. Every day SAT-7 ARABIC and SAT-7 KIDS broadcast and post video messages from church leaders and believers from all over the world with supportive spiritual messages.
On Monday, a group of SAT-7’s Cairo staff members broadcast live prayers on Facebook from the hall where we regularly meet for devotions. The meeting was viewed 19,000 times in one day. Viewers expressed their solidarity and prayer for the channel, saying how much it is needed in these times.
The SAT-7 Egypt office remains open to film and broadcast live on air but with no more than 10 people in the studio. Most staff, like myself, are working from home when possible as the network takes measures to ensure that everyone is safe.
The Egyptian President himself is urging people to take the government decisions seriously, stay at home and practice social distancing in order to help curb the spread of the virus.
The risk is that fear could master people’s hearts during this time, but many churches and religious leaders are continuously sharing messages of hope and support and encouraging people to continue to have faith in God. Lay Christians are fighting fear by sharing verses from the Bible on social media. Meanwhile, Egyptians at large are keeping anxiety at bay by sharing humorous messages about the insanity that most households are going through now that children and their parents are stuck at home for countless hours.
WhatsApp remains my main source of information and government updates as well as a way of entertainment. It’s here that I receive funny gifs and songs about Coronavirus, as well as supportive spiritual messages.
Even though I’m supposed to be working ‘comfortably’ from home, relieved of my hectic daily drive through the Cairo traffic, it’s hard to feel at ease. I can sense the stress among my family members and worry over what’s coming. We try to contain our worry by praying, reading the Bible and following our live church broadcasts.
Since I, like millions of others, am living with my family, there can and probably will be frictions over who takes the TV remote control, who washes the dishes and who answers the door. Jokes about how many families and marriages will survive the curfew intact are wildly circulating on social media.
On a positive note though, church leaders and SAT-7 are stressing that now is the best time for family members to join forces in praise, prayer and worship, not only to fight the virus but to unite as one spiritual body.
Click here to find out more about SAT-7 and how to support its ministry.
Mary Joseph is SAT-7’s Egypt Communications Officer and is based in Cairo. She has lived in Egypt and Australia and worked as a journalist in secular and religious media.
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