We did not coerce government into allowing places of worship to open - SACC


The South African Council of Churches (SACC) has rubbished claims that it coerced the government into allowing places of worship to reopen under Level 3 of the Covid-19 lockdown.

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On Tuesday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that religious gatherings of up to 50 people would be permitted.

The SACC, the biggest Christian church organisation with members from the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) to the Catholic and Methodist churches, has championed religious groupings' calls to have places of worship opened again.

Last week the SACC, met with Ramaphosa to advance their argument in support of the reopening.

READ | Lockdown: Mixed reaction from religious leaders to relaxed rules for gatherings

SACC general secretary Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana said the accusation that churches strong-armed the government into making this concession came from those who "failed to appreciate the intensity of people's spirituality, especially the poorer communities of our society".

Ferocious debate

The call for churches to open led to a ferocious debate on social media as many South Africans raised their concerns.

ACDP leader Reverend Kenneth Meshoe was reported saying that Ramaphosa's reluctance to open places of worship would have implications for next year's local elections.

The SACC made many concessions in their proposal to reopen churches, which include discouraging the elderly from attending services and disallowing singing.

"I don't know that government can be coerced because they use their own assessment. There is no way we can [be under] lockdown forever. There has to be some gradual easing," he said.

Speaking to News24 the day after Ramaphosa's announcement, Mpumlwana said it would be business unusual at places of worship.

He said SACC member churches were conducting Covid-19 readiness preparations with norms and standards the organisation had created for the religious community.

These standards will allow churches to operate within the framework to ensure numbers are capped and that social distancing is observed, he told News24.

"The difficulty will be large churches that have thousands of people on a single day. The same churches are capable using YouTube in a way that poorer communities cannot. There is going to be a difference in the way that we worship but every one of them has got to have Covid-19-ready capacity," he added.

To regulate the inflow of members and cap the number of people who attend a church service, Mpumlwana said there will be more than one worship session in a day.

"In the case of everyday churches, we are saying that members are registered so there is a registry which tells you how many people attend church. You can either use the alphabet and say from A to J, people will attend the first service and so on, so that you can have several services during the week. There is no reason why worship can only be on one day. There has to be a sign-up system. When the number is complete and reaches 50, people can sign for the next service," he said.

Most vulnerable

Mpumlwana also encouraged churches to have Covid-19 stewards to monitor the inflow of worshipers and ensure adherence to the regulations.

"The good thing is that caution and almost the fear of people will also slow the process of coming in until people are sure it's being done the right way."

The SACC has also discouraged the elderly from attending. The elderly are the dominant number of church members.

Mpumlwana said many member churches indicated that they would have a separate service for people older than 55 and some indicated they would not allow the elderly to attend church services entirely.

Senior citizens are considered to be the most vulnerable, especially those older than 80.

"In the main, we are saying please stay at home if you have underlying conditions.

Singing will also be prohibited at places of worship, he added.

"We will have to play music rather than sing music. These are all the ways in which we hope, if we go through that whole system of management, we should be able to come through," he said.

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