With Easter next week now is a good time to think about attending religious festivals and events when travelling abroad. Every country will have a number of these. Think about Carnaval in Brazil, or St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. and Ireland, Eid al-Fitr in Muslim countries or Diwali or Holi in Hindu and Sikh communities. Not all religious events still have their original religious undertone – like St. Patrick’s Day which is now broadly secular - but some remain sacred and holy for the observants of that religion. Whether you intend to participate or not it’s likely that you’ll be travelling when some celebration or commemoration is occurring and you’ll want to be attentive to a few things related to your safety and security.
Know when and where religious festivals and events are taking place
Before you go, do an internet search of the religious festivals which might be occurring when you’re in the country. You might, or might not, be going to the country to participate in them but even if you’re not planning to participate it could still affect your trip. Businesses might be closed, roads could be blocked, and areas where you’re intending to visit could be choked with people. If you’re travelling in Brazil during Carnaval your trip is likely to be impacted even if you’re not wanting to attend. The UK Interfaith Network has a list of religious festivals for 2017 and you can start there.
Large crowds are targets for criminals and terrorists
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) UK often advises against participating or attending religious events and festivals if these have been targeted by criminals or terrorists. A street full of people all pushed up against each other, distracted by a parade or procession, is a pickpocket’s dream! Terrorists target religious gatherings if they want to make a statement and harm the greatest number of people possible. Make sure to read up on the safety and security of previous events both on the FCO travel advice page as well as in guidebooks which should give information about whether it’s safe to participate and tips to do so safely.
Participating & observing
If you want to participate or observe a religious festival or event first find out if it’s appropriate for you to do so. Some religious events have a the-more-the-merrier feel to them, like the Caranaval and some welcome only those who are practicing that religion. For example, Ashura which ends the Islamic month of Muharram and is sacred to Shia Muslims. If you’re not Muslim observing or participating might not be welcome and you should respect the feelings of the community in this regard. If you’re invited by a friend of that faith to join it’s normally OK to do so but you still need to think of your safety.
If you’re observing or participating try to do so from a bit of a distance. At the front, or the central focus, of the procession there is often a crush of people and each year people are harmed and killed in crowd crush. While there might be efforts to prevent this, crowd crush can occur quickly and without warning. Stay back or back out of a crowd that is becoming too tight and fervored.
Religious festivals and events also can be colourful, peculiar, gruesome and fascinating. This doesn’t mean that it’s always appropriate to take pictures. Those participating and observing the event might do so out of religious obligation, fervor and belief. Snapping pictures and gawking at people in prayer or while they participate can be unwelcome. Don’t assume simply because it’s beautiful or colourful that it’s being done for the sake of tourists. Don’t take pictures or film unless others around you are already doing so. And try not to take pictures of individuals at prayer or in the midst of some other devotion without their permission.
For the observant
It could be that you are travelling to a country specifically to participate in a certain religious event or observation as you are a member of that religion. If that religion isn’t targeted for violence in that place it should be fine. However, make sure you know whether it is. If religious events have been targeted in the past then consider how you will participate and whether it’s the right thing for you now. It might be that delaying participation for a year or two might mean it’s safer to do so. If you do participate, consider how you can do so safely. Is there a time when the mosque, church, temple or synagogue is less crowded? Also, try not to be at the very front of the crowd or be among the first people to leave as the event ends.
Religious festivals and events are a wonderful way to get to know more about a country and its culture. Just make sure you’re understanding what they are, whether you should avoid them or how to participate and observe safely.