PRESS STATEMENT: Opening Places of Worship
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, 27 May 2020
(Click here to download)
Opening Places of Worship
The Jesuit Institute South Africa has noted President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that places of worship may reopen with a limit of 50 people or less when the country moves into Level 3 on 1 June 2020. We wholeheartedly support the call for a National Day of Prayer on 31 May, Pentecost Sunday.
Many people of faith have suffered the loss and pain of not being allowed to gather in their respective communities for worship. We know this. Refraining from gathering was seen as a way of religious communities actively choosing to care by temporarily stopping a core practice – gathering for worship – for the common good. We do not need to open churches right now to practise our faith. Prayer, acts of kindness, reading sacred texts and service of neighbour can continue without gathering in the midst of this pandemic.
This sudden, seemingly rushed move is questionable. Evidence of cluster spread in other parts of the world suggests that even in places of worship where strict social distancing rules were upheld there were reports of infection. The more people mix, the more there is potential for spread. Places of worship are not immune to the virus. 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.
The move creates yet another inequality at a time that has highlighted our profoundly unequal society: those who get to attend and those who don’t. How and by whom will this be decided – and monitored? It goes against the very spirit of being a community of believers to split that community. This is an almost impossible decision to make for religious leaders who may have to decide.
Many places of worship do not have the financial capacity to provide the prescribed personal protection equipment and/or personnel to sanitize the buildings, furniture and equipment that is necessary.
Will police check places of worship and break up gatherings of more than 50 persons?
The President insists that the government is learning from other parts of the world and listening to scientists. Fair enough. And we know opinion is divided, evidence uncertain, and the right course unclear. There is a logic behind saying that if we open up businesses, churches should follow. But there is a difference between opening up for economic survival, particularly as people start to starve, and opening institutions that could function differently in these times.
In ethical situations where there are no good options, an ethical response should err on the side of caution. Sadly, we do not believe this does.
For more information:
Fr Russell Pollitt SJ
Director: Jesuit Institute South Africa
+27 82 737 2054
Fr Anthony Egan SJ
+27 72 938 4553
Following the President’s announcement that Churches may re-open from 1 June, several members of the Institute were interviewed or quoted in various media. On CapeTalk, Radio 702, here, here and here, as well as being mentioned at Daily Maverick, The Citizen, EyeWitness News, The Tablet, Independent Catholic News, and ACI Africa, The Globe and Mail, 2oceansvibe, America Magazine, and News24.com. Fr Anthony Egan SJ spoke to SABC News and Fr Russell Pollitt SJ was also quoted in News24 and EWN, here and here and in the Mail&Guardian Editorial. Fr Russell Pollitt SJ was also interviewed on eNCA, ETV News, and gave an op-ed to News24 through the Bhekisa: Centre for Health Journalism.
Gerald Imray wrote an article for the Associated Press (with contributions from Jerome Delay and Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg), which was picked up by The China Post, The Gazette, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, as well as the following radio and wire syndicates:
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