Religious leaders split down the middle over decision to reopen places of worship

Cyril Ramaphosa. Image credit: Twitter/The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on Tuesday that religious gatherings will be permitted during alert level 3 has drawn mixed reactions from religious leaders.

Religious gatherings have been prohibited since 27 March during level 5 and 4 lockdowns, leading to pressure on the government from some groups.

In his address, Ramaphosa said the National Command Council (NCC) had “acceded” to proposals put forward by religious leaders “in accordance with certain norms and standards.”

Gatherings of 50 or fewer

He said, “Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other recognised places of worship may resume services, but these will be limited in size to 50 people or less depending on the space available.

“Social distancing will have to be observed and all worshippers and participants will have to wear face masks in line with the current regulations. 

“All religious organisations must put protocols in place for, among other things, thoroughly cleaning and sanitising places for worship before and after services.”

Among those who welcomed Ramaphosa’s announcement was the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), which nevertheless said it continues to consult with medical professionals on how best to safeguard worshippers.

MJC Secretary-General Shaykh Isgaak Taliep said, “Cape Town remains the epicentre of the epidemic and will require of communities to proceed with absolute caution. It is therefore paramount that Masajid [mosques] ensure that strict regulations are employed to ensure the safety of congregants.”

SACC welcomes, but others oppose

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, the Secretary-General of the SA Council of Churches (SACC), also welcomed the decision, but said churches shouldn’t expose congregants to the virus.

Speaking to SABC News, he said, “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?”

However, the Jesuit Institute SA said in a statement on Wednesday that the government’s decision was “rushed” and “questionable.”

Its Director, Father Russell Pollitt, questioned how the guidelines will be enforced and wondered whether or not the police will “check places of worship and break up gatherings of more than 50 persons.”

He added, “This move seems to contradict the President’s oft-repeated phrase that we must be ‘guided by the overriding principle of doing whatever it takes to preserve life.’

“The government is also sending mixed messages. While a ban on friend and family visits remains in place, it seems illogical that people can gather in places of worship.”

Maimane weighs in

One South Africa Movement leader Mmusi Maimane, who is also a pastor, also questioned the logic of reopening churches.

Writing on Twitter, he said, “While going to church is voluntary and while many churches may observe strict discipline, there are still risks due to human error [or] due to dodgy pastors telling people to remove masks. More importantly, those in the community who did not go to church are involuntarily exposed.”

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies President, Mary Kluk, similarly cautioned that many “mini-outbreaks emanated from religious gatherings.”

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