A syringe is prepared with COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic in Montreal on Monday, March 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Faith leaders preach value of COVID-19 vaccines among followers

When plans for COVID-19 vaccines began to emerge, Rabbi Adam Cutler delivered a sermon at Toronto’s Adath Israel Congregation about a blessing people could recite when receiving their shot.

He said the translation of the Hebrew blessing means “blessed are you God, king of the universe, who is good and bestows good.”

“I think there is an obligation to be grateful to God,” he said in a recent interview.

“It’s a special blessing because it’s something good not just for the person, but actually for society at large.”

Some faith leaders are combining science with scripture to dispel myths and allay fears about the vaccines.

Cutler said the Torah talks about guarding life, which means taking care of health. One way to do that is by getting vaccinated, he said, adding he doesn’t see any conflict between religion and science.

Religious concerns about COVID-19 vaccines have been raised around the world. Questions vary by faith, with Muslims pondering whether the shots are considered halal under Islamic law and Catholics raising concerns about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which they say is produced using tissue cultures from an aborted fetus.

Johnson & Johnson has not disputed those claims, but has said there is no fetal tissue in its COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite the questions, many religious leaders are actively encouraging their followers to get immunized.

Zahir Bacchus, the imam of the Jamiat ul Ansar mosque in Brampton, Ont., said one of the principles of Islam is to prevent harm to others.

“So from a moral standpoint, from an ethical standpoint in our faith, taking a vaccine will prevent that harm, you know, serious harm to another person,” he said.

Bacchus said he has been asked if the vaccines are halal and if it’s OK to take a shot that used tissue cultures from aborted fetal cells.

“Sometimes preservation of life takes precedence over preservation of the religion, or a rule of the religion like a dietary restriction or dietary rule,” he said.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has also weighed in on the issue, saying its advice is based on the fact that Canadians have no choice as to which vaccine they receive.

“Catholics in good conscience, may receive the vaccine that is available and offered to them,” it said in a statement issued earlier this month.

The Vatican took a similar stance in December, saying “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses” in the research and production process when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines aren’t available.

One health sciences researcher at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University said cell lines or tissue cultures that come from aborted fetal cells have historically been used to produce a variety of vaccines, including those for rubella, chickenpox and hepatitis A.

Ralph Pantophlet said such material is generally used during the trial stages of a vaccine or a drug.

“It does not mean that the products from that cell line end up in the final drug or vaccine — or whatever it is that you’re making — that is given to people,” he said.

The companies behind the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines have all said their products are halal, noting both shots were developed using tissue cultures derived from human embryonic cells in the 1970s.

Ananya Tina Banerjee, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana school of public health, said there is an urgent need for public health officials to work with “trusted messengers” to reduce vaccine hesitancy.

There’s a connection between spirituality, valuing the human body, protecting humanity and the health and well-being of everyone, she said.

“And we know faith-based leaders are highly, highly relied upon. I think that’s why they can play a strong role in really helping (followers) be confident in becoming vaccinated.”

She also suggested using places of worship as vaccination centres where health-care professionals of that specific faith administer shots to like-minded recipients.

Cutler and Bacchus would welcome opening their doors as vaccination centres, and not just for their own communities.

Banerjee said people may feel comfortable being vaccinated in a place where they sense they’re connected to a higher being.

“I think, you know, temples, gurdwaras, mosques, churches and synagogues really do serve as vital and trusted points of access for particular racialized immigrant and refugee communities and other communities as well,” she said.

“Actually, they are a natural partner to provide information about the vaccine and deliver a wide scale vaccination program.”

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