•Say only the living can serve God
•Worshipping God not limited to four walls of buildings
•Why we’re eager to have churches reopened—Christian leaders
By Dayo Johnson, Akure; Ola Ajayi, Ibadan; Samuel Oyadongha, Yenagoa; Gabriel Ewepu, Abuja; Rotimi Ojomoyela, Ekiti; Peter Duru, Makurdi; Olayinka Latona, Lagos; Shina Abubakar, Osogbo; and James Ogunnaike, Abeokuta
An empty church
Coronavirus disease which started in Wuhan, China in December 2019 has become a global pandemic within a couple of months claiming thousands of lives on a daily basis. As medical scientists battle to find vaccine to tackle and to prevent the disease, every country has adopted measures to halt its spread. Like the rest of the world, the federal and state governments announced total lockdown for more than a month and a ban on social and religious gatherings with churches and mosques closed.
But even as a cure was yet to be discovered for the disease and cases of infection were increasing everyday across the country, some christian leaders, led by Bishop David Oyedepo of Winners’ Chapel have called for the reopening of churches. They argued that if the government could reopen the markets and other businesses, worship centres should not remain closed. Many Nigerians have however kicked against reopening of places of worship describing such move as premature and insensitive
Barrister Banjo Ayenakin: The call by some Christian leaders for the reopening of churches in the face of COVID-19 pandemic is inhuman and insensitive. There are scriptural examples of pandemic in the Holy Bible and God’s instruction to mankind during these periods was for man to stay indoor until the siege was over. God will not do for man; what man is to do for himself. God will not do by prayers what man is to do by work. This is an issue of life or death. One must not play church or religion with what has to do with man’s existence or otherwise. I don’t believe it is the desperate need for money that is making these religious leaders clamour for the reopening of places of worship. I sincerely believe this call is borne out of ignorance of the enormity of what the world is facing with its attendant complications. All hands must be on the deck to ensure that the battle over COVID-19 is won.
Rev. Fr. Raymond Anoliefo, Executive Director, JDPC Lagos:
Personally, with the uncertainties around COVID-19, I will suggest that all public religious gatherings should remain suspended till further notice. Life and being healthy should come first. And I don’t think that God will be particularly upset that His children are safe and healthy. This is a time when the family should be seen more as a domestic Church and hence the worship of God should be encouraged in the homes and in our hearts, and in these times, even online. The “Church” must first be borne in our individual lives, hearts and homes before it is born into the public spaces, “physical buildings”.
Furthermore, COVID-19 has made it evidently clear to us that preservation of human life, which is a gift from God, comes before “public worship” of the Giver of life. Preserving life and ensuring that its dignity is protected is the primordial way of worshipping the Creator. Indeed, the biblical Good Samaritan worshipped God, not in a sacred building filled with fellow worshippers singing praises to God, but alone on a dusty road at the feet of a bloodied and abandoned half-dead man. And the Catholic Church has always been in the forefront of upholding this Samaritan principle everywhere, as evinced in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) donating her hospitals (425 in number) to the government for use as treatment centres. Once again with the uncertainties surrounding this virus, opening up places of worship so soon will certainly be against this principle.
The Head of Aladura Patriarch and leader of Merciful Christ Church Incorporated, Olapade Agoro condemned the calls for reopening of churches saying such calls were not in tandem with the Holy Bible which mandates all Christians to obey those in authority. He said, “servants of God must obey government. The Bible says we must obey those in authority. If we reopen churches, how are we going to manage the spread of COVID-19 virus? Are we to please ourselves as Christians or to please God? If we disobey, we are not pleasing God; we are pleasing ourselves. We can stay at home and pray and God will answer. We, at times, play God instead of pleasing Him”.
Also condemning the calls, a community leader, Chief Taiye Ayorinde, Baale of Ekotedo advised other men of God to toe the path of Pastor Enoch Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Church of God who promptly obeyed the authorities by asking all his numerous congregations to watch him online. He said, “to hearken is better than sacrifice. To me, any man of God who feels comfortable to disobey the law of the land is not a real man of God but a self serving man. We, as Christians, are not meant to break the law of the land. What happens if the traditionalists break this same law of restrictions too? The virus will continue to spread to our detriment.
Pastor Francis Olukayode Olufayo of the Christ Apostolic Church said he had been hearing reports that some mosques and churches were opening for members. According to him, “This is not good at all. We are only creating more problems. All we need to do at this crucial period is to pray to God to stop this evil virus. We are not to add to the problems on ground”
Renowned activist Alagoa Morris said: “The leaders and adherents of the two main religions, Christianity and Islam are acting as if God is so deaf and blind that He does not know what is happening and He only hears prayers when people congregate in a particular location or building called church, temple or mosques. The prophets go to lonely places like mountains and the wilderness to pray alone. What these religious folks are trying to do is to stop stores and markets where people still manage to get food stuff. Most of them are arguing why markets would be opened while places of worship are closed. But they are wrong; even civil society organisations like NGOs have not been organising workshops since this Covid-19 pandemic related lockdown. It has affected all sectors.
“It would be like the lady whose child died and wanted King Solomon to divide the living child of the other lady, if religious bodies continue to cite markets and stores as pointers to justify why they should be allowed to operate too. Yes, man cannot live by bread alone; but we need food daily for our families. Not only churches are losing money, hoteliers and aircraft owners are also losing. The entire world is in for this. Let them pray for successful discovery of effective cure for coronavirus. Most people are tired of this long holiday. So, they should understand what is still keeping us locked is for the general well-being of all.”
The Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC, Awual Ibrahim Rafsanjani, said church leaders and other religious leaders should have a rethink and shelf the call to reopen worship centres in order not to expose their members to the virus, particularly the ordinary man who does not have the wherewithal to cater for his health
Rafsanjani said: “We should try as much as possible to comply with the health experts and government regulations. This is because all over the world having a mass gathering is being discouraged because of high rate of infection. “So we urge religious, community, and political leaders to try as much as possible not to expose their members to health crisis because already we are having a serious dilapidation and collapse of health care system in Nigeria. Already Nigerians are facing trouble, survival has become extremely difficult for them and they cannot afford medical treatment because government hospitals are lacking professionals, drugs and simple facilities, and even treatment.
The Country Director, ActionAid Nigeria, Ene Obi, described the call as disheartening, and called on those church leaders to cooperate with the government to save lives of Nigeria who are their members, especially this period of huge community infection.
“It is disheartening. COVID-19 is real and every citizen needs to cooperate with the Government to save many people and reduce the infection in the country. We call for the spirit of patriotism to save ourselves. Our health system is in shambles, that’s why politicians take our money and go out for treatment instead of strengthening the health systems. Churches should know the seriousness of COVID-19, the disease will not go to those in their homes, and gathering cannot be accepted during this time of huge community infection that is going on. All religious gatherings are not encouraged.
“The worst hit will be the most vulnerable, but the disease has shown that it does not respect any status. We must protect ourselves. People should go out when there’s no choice. A lot of primitive acquisition is going on and churches are buying planes when there’s so much poverty in the land. The land needs to heal as many have gone astray”, she stated.
In another reaction, the Convener, Concerned Nigerians, CN, Comrade Deji Adeyanju, opposed the call and said it was not proper to reopen churches with the escalating rate of infection.
“I am completely opposed to this because with some statistics available we are having a surge in cases of Coronavirus pandemic in the country, therefore it will not make any sense whatsoever to reopen worship centres for now because in doing so we will be shooting ourselves in the foot.
“It is also important to note that what religious leaders should be doing right now is providing support to their congregation, trying as much as possible to feed them, also availing government to use their facilities as testing and isolation centres, which we have already seen with the Catholic church donating over 400 hospitals nationwide to the government to use as isolation centres.
“The Catholics have set a wonderful example in the country and I believe all religious institutions in the country whether it is mosque or church should do so because we are facing a national pandemic and the response must be collective”, Adeyanju said.
In Ekiti state, about ten pastors of different churches within Ado Ekiti, the Ekiti capital have been arrested and prosecuted by the covid-19 task force for holding church services with over hundred worshippers despite the government order. Some stakeholders including notable religious leaders in the state have however kicked against reopening churches saying service to God was not limited to the four walls of buildings. According to them, “our God is everywhere and can answer prayers irrespective of your location. The Bible has it that the Israelites fasted and prayed in the wilderness and God answered them. It is good to congregate and worship God together but whenever circumstances like the pandemic occur it is not a sin to serve God from home. God knows why churches must be closed at this moment, it is only the living that can serve God, opening churches at this moment would amount to tempting God and the consequences would be devastating.
In his reaction, Pastor Olusola Alonge of the Assembly of God Church Basiri Ado Ekiti, explained that God directed believers in the Holy Bible to respect every authority in power and all that they directed.
According to him, since the lockdown began, he had been reaching out to his congregation through radio and social media platforms and the feedback have been good.
Also Prophet James Omitade of the Holy Trinity Authority Prophetic Ministry, disagreed with some of the leaders agitating for the reopening, describing the agitation as premature. Omitade noted that the covid-19 pandemic could only be resolved if everyone adhered to the necessary precautions and support government with prayers.
Mr Gabriel Adamolekun, President, Catholic Men Organization, Abeokuta Diocese:
“Some religious leaders are clamouring for re-opening of worship centers because some didn’t believe in what our political leaders were saying. Moreover, some of the religious leaders are draining the worshipers’ purse by telling them lies through unfounded dreams and prophecies.
Furthermore, the fear that they may lose some of their dedicated members who have passion for the church and the pastor may be responsible for the call. Also, those who believed that they were alive due to their religious leaders had seen the light. The church is our heart that transcend to our immediate family. Let us obey our government as directed by our God. It’s those who are alive that can praise God.
Bishop Seun Adeoye, World Bishops Council: Bishop Adeoye described the decision of government to keep churches closed while markets and businesses were opened as double standard. He said allowing markets and banks to open while the pandemic was still raging showed that churches could as well commence congregation without jettisoning the safety of the masses.
He said, “those agitating for reopening of churches wondered why the government would relax restriction at markets, banks and other businesses while churches were closed. If we feel that the society is still under threat, then the lockdown should be general rather than opening businesses and lock religious centres. Personally, I believe that if we have not reached the stage to ease the restriction, then every public space should remain under lockdown. Is government saying the banks and markets it opened are not places where the virus can be transmitted? I see the move as counter-productive. We are all aware that our markets lack any control mechanism, so how does the government intend to check transmission of the virus in such condition and circumstances? From the foregoing, you can understand the reasons behind the agitation of those seeking for the opening of churches”.
Bishop Amos Ogunrinde, Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria, Osun State branch: “I align with those seeking that Churches and even Mosques should be opened because through prayers the search for solution could be faster. Moreover, if markets have been opened and commercial buses and motorcyclists have started businesses, then religious centres should be opened with all the measures put in place. Preventive measures such as the use of face mask, sanitisers and observing social distancing are possible in many churches and mosques. I believe it is time we pray to God to help humanity resolve the crisis without jeopardising the safety of members of the congregation”.
Alhaji Kamaldeen Akintunde, former National President, NACCOMYO.
“It is true that leaders of some religious sects and groups are advocating for the reopening of places of worship and centres that have remained closed by government. Some religious leaders have taken religion to be a source of livelihood, while on the other hand, it is an endeavour targeted at attainment of life and collective goal. While it is true that some Nigerians have donated buildings, hospitals as isolation and treatment centres, and some have equally donated money and items as stimulus palliatives, leaders of faith based organisations (fbo) and groups that are calling for the lift of the ban on religious gatherings also meant well as worship centres, including mosques and churches are veritable places of seeking divine intervention in the Covid 19 crisis. As no stone must be left unturned in the onslaught against Covid 19, the current efforts at curtailing the easily transmissible viral infection therefore calls for more restraint and understanding on the part of leaders of faith based organisations (fbos), including their followers or congregation as government has a responsibility to save lives. The pandemic demands being sensible indoors than being religious outwardly.
The Chairman of Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, Benue state chapter, Rev. Akpen Leva explained why the leadership of the church was eager to have churches reopened.
“We are eager to have the churches reopened because firstly, the lockdown has affected the church spiritually in a way. Some weaker christians are affected spiritually because when we gathered together the weaker ones are strengthened by the encouragement and spiritual support from others. So, since we are not together, those that are weak go astray because they are not meeting and fellowshipping together. Secondly, it has affected the church economically. Many people are suffering, pastors are suffering, the parishioners are suffering.
Thirdly, it is believed that the church has solutions to our problems, we want to come back so that we can jointly continue to pray so that God will hear our prayers and take away the current pandemic ravaging the world. It is true that we can pray in our houses but communal prayer is very important. Our appeal is that in as much as we want the churches reopened we should review the situation and know what steps to take because it is better for us to be safe first before the reopening.
Pastor Seyi Osanyibi- Power & Glory Tabernacle, Akure: It does not make any sense to open markets without any form of control being imposed on those going there to buy or sell. It does not make any scientific sense. It just shows you the disdain that politicians have for religious bodies. Can they in any honesty tell us that they have stopped political meetings at nights in their various secret locations? The point that Bishop Oyedepo was therefore making was that the decision was based on politics rather than on science. More evidence will show you that this world wide lockdown is really not because of anything like convid 19. There are serious global agenda at play here and our government is either naive or they want to key into the new world order that the globalists want to birth.
Reverend Israel Kristilere, Senior pastor, ShepherdHill Baptist Church, Obanikoro: I agree that the government should put religious institutions, in the program of the gradual relaxation of the rule on social gatherings. However, the government should give religious leaders the number of people that can gather and the need to ensure social distancing in every gathering with the use of masks and provision of hand sanitizers. The call is a welcome development realizing that many of the markets that have reopened are not really observing the rules. If we consider Nigeria as a religious state, churches and mosques should not be the last to reopen.
Rev. Fr. Anthony Godonu, Director of Social Communications, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos:
It depends on which angle you are looking at it from. The lockdown for over six weeks in Lagos has not been properly utilized by the authorities to trace, test and treat the COVID-19 pandemic patients. We are not testing enough persons and that is the problem. Concerning some Christian leaders advocating opening of the churches, I will say that it makes sense to open the churches. If you can open the markets and some offices, why not the churches where we can actually have enough crowd control. For me, the Government should open the churches and give us guidelines to follow. If there is any institution that loves life and preserves life, it is the church especially the Catholic Church.
Joseph Ambakederimo, Converner South South Reawakening Group said: “We need to abide by the protocols put out by the experts on this Covid-19 pandemic. Let us not be too fast in reopening places of worship either churches or mosques and even other places until we are sure things are easing out. We need to be very well prepared for the eventual upsurge of positive cases. We should encourage those of them who have donated their churches in readiness for any eventuality. For those of them who are clamouring to reopen we urge them to stay action until a careful watch of the situation and not to engage in any thing that could further aid the spread of the coronavirus.”
Eric Omare, immediate past president of IYC (worldwide) said: “I think that the call by some religious leaders for re-opening of churches is without any scientific foundation. I say so because the virus ravaging the world is a medical issue hence any quest to open churches must be predicated on solid and sound scientific advise by the appropriate authorities. This is not an emotional issue as some religious leaders in Nigeria have already done. Though I must also say that some other religious organisations have conducted themselves very well and have been very matured and enlightened in their comments in guiding their members. Above all, I call on governments at the state and federal level not to concede to the unnecessary demand to reopen religious houses for mass worship. Any such action must be based on sound medical advise and not on the emotional demand of church leaders.”