A court in Myanmar has sentenced a Canadian pastor to three months in jail after he held in-person church services in defiance of a government-mandated ban on mass gatherings.
Pastor David Lah, 43, and his colleague, Myanmar national Wai Tun, were charged in April with violating Myanmar’s Natural Disaster and Management Law by holding services in the city of Yangon, the AFP reports. Though based in Toronto, Lah was born in Myanmar and often returns to his motherland to preach.
On Thursday, both men were convicted of breaking administrative rules and given a three-month hard labor sentence, Maung Soe, a judge at Yangon's Mayangone Township court, told reporters.
"The judge also took into consideration the time he's already spent in detention, so he could very well be released in the next few days or weeks even," Al Jazeera's Florence Looi said in her report from Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Myanmar imposed a ban on mass gatherings in mid-March in response to the novel coronavirus. However, footage emerged in early April of Lah holding a service in Yangon.
"If people hold the Bible and Jesus in their hearts, the disease will not come in," he said, according to video footage of the event. "The only person who can cure and give peace in this pandemic is Jesus."
Weeks later, about 20 people connected to his gatherings tested positive for the novel coronavirus, including Pastor Lah. However, it's possible that attendees contracted the virus elsewhere.
The preacher was arrested after recovering from the illness in May and faced up to three years in jail. On Thursday, a waiting crowd of the preacher's followers erupted into cheers and celebrations at the news of his reduced sentence, according to the AFP.
About 6% of Buddhist-majority Myanmar's population identifies as one of the various Christian denominations in the country.
Religious persecution watchdog International Christian Concern previously reported that because of Lah’s actions, many Christians in Myanmar “face criticism and have sensed hostilities toward them in the Buddhist majority country.”
“Christian leaders have appealed to citizens to work together to fight COVID-19 in unity and love as anti-Christian sentiment surges on social media,” ICC said. “They also urged people not to post and share fake news, photos and videos on Facebook that may be offensive to religion.”
Open Doors ranks Myanmar at No. 19 on its 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it's most difficult to be a Christian.
Government restrictions on places of worship in the wake of COVID-19 have sparked controversy in recent months, with some pastors accusing civil leaders of “usurping a role that they don't have.”
Megachurch Pastor Ed Young previously told The Christian Post that while the issue is "complex," the spiritual ramifications of refusing to meet outweigh the hype of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Look at our culture. There is so much going on right now spiritually, especially among young people facing depression, anxiety, and attempting suicide,” the Texas-based pastor said. “I have counted the cost of not opening our church versus opening, and I believe that risk and faith go hand in hand. It’s critical to reopen churches.”
The pastor cited Hebrews 10:25 which says, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near,” to encourage congregations to meet physically.
“I just don't want us to lose our boldness and I don't want the church to mail it in," he said. "Throughout church history, the church has not mailed it in. We've stood in pandemics, we've stood during wars, and in all sorts of chaos and mayhem. Today, technology has allowed us to take the easy way out.”
Just 12% of Americans said they attended a house of worship from mid-June to mid-July, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Among Evangelical Protestants, a 62% majority says houses of worship should be held to the same standards as other businesses and organizations.