President Cyril Ramaphosa says a number of religious organisations have asked the government to ease some lockdown restrictions on the size of congregations allowed at places of worship ahead of the Easter long weekend and Ramadan observances.
Writing in his weekly newsletter on Monday, Ramaphosa said the government was deliberating the request by religious leaders and would make an announcement in the coming days.
“I recently had an extremely constructive virtual meeting with leaders of the faith community. These leaders understand and appreciate the very real danger of a new wave of Covid-19 infections. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, religious organisations have taken proactive and positive measures to limit the spread of the disease among worshippers,” he said.
“In the light of these precautionary measures, a number of religious organisations have asked that some of the existing restrictions on the size of congregations be eased, especially as we prepare for Easter and Ramadan observances. The government is deliberating on these and other issues and will make an announcement in the coming days.”
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The president’s announcement comes amid reports that the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) has been advised by the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) to move the country to Alert Level 2 lockdown to help minimise the risk of a third wave of Covid-19 infections after the Easter break.
Under level 1 lockdown restrictions, public gatherings are permitted for 100 people for indoor venues and 250 for outside venues.
Ramaphosa said faith-based organisations had been vital to the country’s national response to the Covid-19 pandemic, “not only providing spiritual comfort and guidance but also by caring for those most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, including through the provision of food, shelter and other social services”.
“Religion plays an important role in the lives of millions of South Africans and congregational worship forms a vital part of their religious practice. Being able to gather for religious services is also a welcome respite from a period of great hardship for individuals, families and communities.”
The president said during the various lockdown levels, religious organisations had incurred substantial financial losses that threatened their sustainability.
“As the government we remain committed to working with the faith community to find workable solutions. At the same time, public health and safety must be our paramount consideration,” he said.
Ramaphosa praised the religious community for showing innovation and initiative in the holding of worship services during the pandemic.
“Congregational services were held online and worshippers were encouraged to pray in their homes instead of attending services. This greatly aided the national effort to contain the spread of the disease.
“Religious leaders played a pivotal role in encouraging public adherence to health measures around important customary and cultural rituals like burials.”
‘Precaution is needed above all’
As the Easter holidays approach, Ramaphosa warned South Africa is now at a time when “precaution is needed above all”. He said the coronavirus pandemic had not been eliminated and the threat of a third wave was real and ever-present.
“International experience has taught us we should not tempt fate. Many countries have eased restrictions, only for there to be resurgences, necessitating the imposition of even harsher restrictions.”
The president encouraged faith-based communities to innovate in the holding of congregational worship over the upcoming Easter, Passover and Ramadan observances as they did last year.
“Large gatherings, whether religious or otherwise, have the potential to spread the virus, despite the application of measures around social distancing and sanitising.
“Over this coming weekend, millions of South Africans will be observing an important tenet of their faith. In a country that enshrines the right to religious freedom, all effort must be made to support our people in the exercise of this right. In exercising this right, we need to make sure that we do not place the rights or the lives of others at risk,” he said.