A five-day French megachurch conference is being blamed for sparking the country’s largest cluster of coronavirus cases as over 17 members have reportedly died due to complications linked to COVID-19.
Reuters reports that local government officials are saying that the annual prayer meeting at the Christian Open Door Church in the border city of Mulhouse on the German border in mid-February has been linked to as many as 2,500 coronavirus cases worldwide.
The cluster of coronavirus cases linked to the evangelical charismatic church conference attended by people from around the world played a key factor in Germany’s decision to partially close its border with France, people familiar with the decision told the news agency.
Attendees of the conference traveling from different parts of the globe have taken the virus back to home countries like Burkina Faso in West Africa, Corsica in the Mediterranean, and Guyana in Latin America, according to Reuters.
Although the world has a better idea today of the quickness in which the virus spreads, there were only 12 confirmed cases of the virus in France at the time that the conference occurred, with none in Mulhouse.
Also at that time, France had not yet placed restrictions on large gatherings. Additionally, a church spokesperson said that no attendee reported flu-like symptoms by the time the gathering ended on Feb. 21.
“At the time, we viewed COVID as something that was far off,” Jonathan Peterschmitt, son of the church’s lead pastor, Samuel, told Reuters.
A church spokesperson told the outlet that Samuel Peterschmitt has also fallen ill to the coronavirus.
At times, there were as many as 2,500 people in attendance at the conference, Peterschmitt said. But according to him, there were never times during the conference with fewer than 1,000 people in attendance.
“So we were in the same petri dish for a week,” Peterschmitt was quoted as saying.
The first case of the virus being linked to the church gathering was identified on Feb. 29 and health officials traced the people that carriers were in contact with.
Public health officials told Reuters that the church cooperated fully and supplied a list of conference attendees. Officials said they first contacted people who worked in the nursery during the conference.
Michel Vernay, an epidemiologist with France’s national public health agency in eastern France, told the news agency that health officials discovered that people who were staffing the nursery were already sick.
“We were overwhelmed,” Vernay was quoted as saying. “We realized that we had a time bomb in front of us.”
In France, there are over 45,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Tuesday afternoon.
According to Vernay, about a quarter of France’s coronavirus cases as of March 20 were in the region of the country where Mulhouse lies. He stressed that a “very great majority” of the cases in the Grand Est region can be traced to the church gathering.
On the French island of Corsica, a 70-year-old female attendee of the church conference who contracted COVID-19 says people are pointing the finger at her for bringing the virus to the island as over 200 people have been infected.
“People have pointed their finger at me,” the female attendee identified only as “Antoinette,” told Reuters. “They need a scapegoat.”
Meanwhile, Peterschmitt claims that others in the congregation have been verbally attacked by strangers and are now fearful.
Christian Open Door church is not the first church to be linked to the spread of the coronavirus.
In South Korea, members of a secretive religious cult known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus have faced criticism and harassment from the government and society after a surge of infections broke out among churchgoers.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressionally mandated body of independent commissioners, warned in March that South Korea “provides a vivid example of how public health emergencies can increase the risk to marginalized religious groups.”
“Although some government measures appeared to be driven by legitimate public health concerns, others appeared to exaggerate the church’s role in the outbreak,” USCIRF stressed in a report. “The government of Seoul locked down Shincheonji churches in the capital, and some mainline Protestant groups have accused the church of deliberately spreading the disease.”
While some argue that government orders banning large church gatherings could inhibit religious freedom rights, USCIRF Chairman Tony Perkins suggested in a tweet that holding church services during the ongoing pandemic is not what he considers to be an act of religious freedom.
“At this point, holding public church gatherings in the midst of a public health crisis is not a defense of religious freedom — it is a defiance of common sense and the care of your congregation,” Perkins tweeted. “Spread the Good News, not the virus!”
In the U.S., some pastors and churches are continuing to hold church services while many have moved services online.
Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who leads the Revival International Ministries and The River at Tampa Bay Church, was arrested on Monday after holding service Sunday in violation of public stay-at-home orders. He was charged with unlawful assembly and a violation of health emergency rules.
Louisiana pastor Tony Spell held live services attended by hundreds this past Sunday at Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge in defiance of bans on large gatherings.