Church services evacuated, pastors arrested in several countries over gathering bans

A church bell hangs from a tree branch outside a Catholic church and a school in Odek village, Uganda.
A church bell hangs from a tree branch outside a Catholic church and a school in Odek village, Uganda. | (PHOTO: REUTERS/JAMES AKENA)

Authorities in countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and Greece have evacuated church services and arrested pastors in recent days as governments have prohibited large gatherings in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As governments across the globe have taken measures to ensure that citizens engage in social distancing so that they don’t spread a virus that has already killed at least 21,000 people worldwide as of Thursday, some religious leaders have continued to hold worship services anyway. 

In Nigeria, authorities in the states of Lagos and Ogun shut down several church services in the past week. 

“We had to shut down a few services today as some pastors have not complied with the order,” Bala Elkana, spokesperson for the Lagos Police Command, told Bloomberg.  

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“We cannot allow the virus to spread beyond the level that the health facilities can handle. We will continue to enforce the ban until we have full compliance.” 

As there are over 480,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide, Nigeria has only had 51 cases of the coronavirus as of Thursday morning, according to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine’s Coronavirus Resource Center

Despite bans on large gatherings, The Daily Trust reports that there was an influx of people who attended church services across several states in southern Nigeria on Sunday. 

Last week, the Lagos state government ordered schools to shut down and temporarily banned gatherings of more than 50 people, a figure later reduced to gatherings of more than 20 people. The ban comes as a good chunk of Nigeria’s coronavirus cases is in Lagos, the country’s largest city. 

Lagos Deputy Commissioner of Police Mohammed Ali confirmed for the News Agency of Nigeria that three pastors were arrested for disobeying the government’s ban on large gatherings of over 20

The pastors were not detained but were warned to comply with the government’s order, according to Nigeria’s Daily Post newspaper. 

In the Ogun state, the state government deployed an enforcement team to ensure compliance with the state’s temporary ban on gatherings of over 50 people. The enforcement team was tasked with checking “social gatherings across the state including parties, clubs, lounges, schools and religious assemblies.” 

Video posted online by the Ogun state government shows security personnel disrupting church services to enforce the ban. The video also shows one pastor arguing with a security officer outside of his church.  

According to The Guardian, security agents also dispersed hundreds of worshipers from the Winner’s Chapel in Abeokuta on Sunday morning. 

One pastor from the Ogun town of Ota reportedly said that the Christian Association of Nigeria called on churches to hold Sunday church services as planned to help raise awareness of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“So we can describe yesterday’s service as public awareness service,” the church leader told The Guardian. “Very few people as expected were not aware and they were properly educated.”

Many African governments have passed restrictions on gatherings as experts fear that the coronavirus pandemic could devastate healthcare systems across the continent.  

In Ghana, where there are now 68 confirmed cases, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo on March 15 banned all public gatherings including church activities, funeral services and outdoor events.

Last Wednesday, a pastor was arrested for defying the ban. According to GhanaWeb, Apostle Kofi Nkansah-Sarkodie of Open Arms Ministry in Kumasi was arrested after officers were dispatched to the church over reports of ongoing activity. 

On Sunday, the pastor of the Kingdom of God Church in a suburb of Nkawkaw, John Jeremiah Addo, was reportedly arrested for unlawful assembly.

According to GhanaWeb, Addo told police that he did not understand why the government banned religious services but is allowing traders to sell products in markets. 

On March 18, authorities reportedly shut down a prayer camp in the village of Pokrom and arrested the camp’s founder along with an elder. 

In Uganda, where there are at least 14 cases of the coronavirus, several pastors have been arrested for defying a presidential directive temporarily banning gatherings.

According to the Daily Monitor, the pastors arrested include Alfred Mubangizi of God is Able Church in Nabukalu and Gerald Kalumba of the Kampala Archdiocese. Both pastors were later released. 

The Daily Monitor also reports that two pastors were arrested at the Christian Witness Church in Kampala. 

A pastor and 30 churchgoers at the Blessed Feelings Church International in Kajjansi were arrested for participating in a church service Wednesday morning, according to PML Daily. While the churchgoers were released, the pastor was detained. 

In Greece, where there are 821 confirmed cases of coronavirus, Greek Orthodox Priest Metropolitan Seraphim was arrested last Saturday after he held a worship service on Friday despite a government ban on gatherings. 

Seraphim told police that he was not informed of the ban, as reported by the Greek City Times. He was later released and told to comply with the order.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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