Mixed reaction from spiritual leaders to relaxed rules for religious gatherings

Senegalese Muslim worshippers in Dakar kept up with social distancing practises before Friday prayers. AFP/JOHN WESSELS

Religious leaders are aware of the dangers – ‘we don’t want our churches to be gateways to the grave,’ said one.

There is mixed reaction to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that religious gatherings of up to 50 people will be permitted as the country braces itself for the Covid-19 peak.

The Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) is “extremely happy” with the announcement but the Jesuit Institute is confused by the decision, given the spate of new infections linked to churches abroad.

“I think the community was yearning for it,” MJC secretary general Shaykh Isgaak Taliep said on Tuesday night.

“The Muslim community obviously made tremendous sacrifices with regards to not being able to attend places of worship and especially during the course of the month of Ramadaan,” said Taliep.

“But this statement is very welcomed.”

He said the MJC had worked with the government on these decisions and appreciated the way in which Ramaphosa consulted the religious fraternity.

However, the council said it was also aware of the need to proceed carefully, especially in the Western Cape which has the most cases of Covid-19 in the country.

He said Ramaphosa made clear the rules that congregants need to adhere to. They had already become used to the new way of praying before the lockdown when services were limited to 100.

Everybody is also used to wearing masks, sanitising, and social distancing.

There will still have to be some work done to make sure that everybody complies with the new restriction of 50 people.

‘Not a very wise decision’

But Father Russell Pollitt, director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa, is confused by Ramaphosa’s surprise announcement.

Pollitt said the reopening of many churches abroad led to a sudden spike in infections.

“It seems to me that it is not a very wise decision,” said Pollitt.

He has many questions: Who gets to decide which 50 people would be allowed to attend a service? Will it be the religious leader’s favourites?

He also wants to know what will happen if gatherings exceed 50 people.

“Will the police barge in?” he asked.

He referred to churches which were not well funded in South Africa, asking where they would get the money for the required sanitisation regime.

Pollitt said he found it strange that people could not buy a cigarette and smoke it by themselves, but they could gather together in a building.

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, secretary general of the SA Council of Churches (SACC) told the SABC that all religious organisations were “at one on the appeal for the availability of spiritual ministrations to the South African public in the context of the anxieties of coronavirus”.

He said all faith groups were saying the same thing.

The SACC said the member churches offered their properties for victims of gender-based violence, extra space for classrooms, or quarantine spaces.

“If we can conduct funerals with 50 persons, why can’t we worship as 50? And it seems to make sense – why can’t we have weddings for 50?”

He said the services and ministrations that the churches want to do can be done within the number of 50. They have discussed being “Covid safe” because they “don’t want to fool around with the virus”.

They have proposed a set of norms and standards, proposing to break up the congregation over the week, either according to the alphabet, or ages.

He said the majority of worshippers were people who “worship under trees” and could not access the internet or leave their homes.  Now people could “go to their favourite tree” but while keeping numbers in mind.

They will wait for the regulations to be announced by Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and have already been meeting every Tuesday for a Covid-19 update.

They will follow the rules.

“We don’t want our churches to be gateways to the grave,” he said.

He also hoped that all churches would adhere to the law and protect the safety of their people.

Earlier this week, African Christian Democratic Party’s Reverend Kenneth Meshoe questioned why schools were allowed to reopen but not churches.

He said he was concerned of an “anti-church attitude developing in South Africa”.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies appreciated that the task before the government wasn’t an easy one, adding that it would abide by the regulations.

The board’s president, Mary Kluk, told News24 people had to be mindful that many “mini-outbreaks emanated from religious gatherings”.

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