By ZWELETHU DLAMINI | 2020-05-10
Cabinet was put firmly on the spotlight yesterday when it was forced to backtrack on an earlier announcement made by Minister of Home Affairs Princess Lindiwe relating to a review of the church services regulations.
The minister had announced a review of the number of people that can fellowship in churches at any given time from the previous 20 to 70 per cent, which had been set to start today.
The review was retracted within hours by Cabinet, causing untold embarrassment in the handling of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
When making this announcement, the minister was accompanied by church leaders which included the Conference of Churches President Bishop Steven Masilela, League of Churches President Bishop Samson Hlatshwayo and Chairman of Council of Churches Arch Deacon Bhekibandla Magongo.
The minister was quick to state that all church activities should adhere to ministry of health precautions and that security forces will be monitoring churches to ensure that the precautions are followed, including that all members wear masks and are sanitised. The minister said the church services are to strictly observe gatherings of not more than 70 per cent of the capacity of their places of worship observing social distance. “The 70 per cent would be determined by places of worship observing the coronavirus regulation of 2020, as long as the members do not exceed 70 per cent of the capacity of their places of worship. All church activities should adhere to ministry of health precautions,” she announced. The minister said the 70 per cent allowed for the social distancing requirement of the COVID-19 regulations. The minister then announced 11 guidelines to be observed by the churches that the ministry in collaboration with church leaders has put in place following the announcement of the relaxed partial lockdown. “Following His Majesty King Mswati III’s address and His Excellency the Prime Minister’s direction to ease the partial lockdown on the economy regarding the COVID-19 pandemic; the ministry of home affairs in collaboration with church leaders herein guides religious groups as follows:
“Church services are to strictly observe gatherings of not more than 70 per cent of the capacity of their places of worship observing social distance. All church activities should adhere to Ministry of Health precautions,” she said.
The minister stated that church leaders are expected to keep attendance registers with attendees’ residential addresses and contact numbers for contact tracing purposes.
Leaders are further encouraged to provide screening services in all entry points, in particular in the Red Zoned areas. “Leaders are advised to encourage members to attend services at their nearest places of worship. All meeting venues are to be sanitised before and after meetings. Members not feeling well, particularly those with chronic diseases are encouraged not to attend worship gatherings, but to stay at home,” she said. The minister added that meetings or gatherings/church services should not exceed two hours and should be held during the day and religious leaders should avoid all other activities with the potential to spread the coronavirus. However, this was met with a backlash from the public, especially social media users who criticised government for a risky decision that appeared to violate the COVID-19 regulations. It forced government to retract the alteration by the minister a couple of hours after the announcement was made. Members of the public, who complained that the church is a high risk to spreading the coronavirus, vented their anger in social media platforms, many calling the decision as being reckless. To add further misery, church leaders said they were confused by Cabinet’s decision to retract the review as they had consulted with Cabinet for three days regarding the matter. As such, they contended that the decision, as far as they were aware, had met Cabinet’s approval. This happened amidst celebrations from Christians who supported the 70 per cent sitting capacity arrangement while MPs and some members of the public viewed the earlier stance by government as having been rushed. The church leaders stated that they had already communicated the earlier statement to their members and were going to have a hard time retracting it in the evening but promised to find means to do so. The leaders revealed that the withdrawn statement had been an outcome of a meeting with government and security forces which lasted for three days and they were surprised to learn of the abrupt withdrawal. Bishop Samson Hlatshwako stated that he had already passed on the initial guidelines and the effective date as today hence he cannot blame churches who will host services with more than 70 people if they did not exceed the 70 per cent sitting capacity of the churches. “We have communicated the guidelines that were issued out by the minister in the morning and church leaders had already informed their members to come to church. We cannot be able to pass the changes to all that had been reached. We had been engaging government on the matter for three days since Thursday and we agreed on the 70 per cent capacity the latest development is a surprise to us,” he said. He then appealed to the security services to be lenient with the churches that would have adhered to the initial guidelines saying they will adhere to the latest next week. Bishop Stephen Masilela also stated that he also got the revised guideline late and they were doing all in their means to adhere to it. “We will meet with the other church leaders to find a solution to the matter and ensure that we are compliant,” he said.
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