Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu on Saturday announced the reopening of places of worship at 50 per cent capacity effective August 7. The re-opening after four months religious centres were closed down as a result of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the governor said, followed the downward curve in active cases recorded in the state for some time.
But the re-opening order came with caveats: Ju’mat prayer or church services should be held in well-ventilated halls with physical distancing order enforced.
Only regular services or religious gatherings are permitted; no vigils or other programmes until further notice; people above 65 years are not allowed to attend; handwashing, sanitising, thermometer, as well as a mandatory face mask policy.
The governor, who reiterated the need for people to take responsibility in the battle against the virus by adhering to all protocols as plans continue to flatten the curve and gradually return to normal said the important decisions were taken to calibrate an effective balance between competing demands of safeguarding lives and enabling livelihoods.
Statistics from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) on Tuesday night indicated that 304 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded across the country out of which Lagos recorded 59 and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) 90. From the statistics, Nigeria has recorded 44,433 confirmed cases, 31,851 discharged survivors and 910 deaths since the index case of the disease was recorded in the country on February 27.
Prior to the announcement, the government came under severe criticisms, especially from the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), some popular pastors such as David Oyedepo and Chris Oyakhilome who described as unacceptable, unjustifiable and untenable, the continued lockdown of worship centres while markets and other less-organised places were allowed to function.
They regarded the continued closure of places of worship as an attack on Christendom, insisting that churches should be allowed to run their services unhindered so that more people can be healed of the virus.
Hence, the partial re-opening came to these groups as cheery news, with CAN describing it as prayers answered.
Hailing the decision, Lagos CAN Chairman, Apostle Alex Bamgbola said the move was a loud testimony to the prayers of church leaders, just as he urged churches to comply with all regulations on COVID-19 to avoid losing the gains of the re-opening.
Similarly, the founder, Living Faith Church Worldwide, Bishop David Oyedepo said the re-opening of churches in Lagos and Ogun states was an attestation that the devil has been shamed. He stated this while preaching to the congregation on Sunday.
“The laughter has begun; the devil is tired, the devil is weary. By next Sunday (August 9), all the churches in Lagos will be opened. The devil is tired. Why fight a battle you know you cannot win? Can any man win against God? Can any authority win against God? Shame on the devil!
“The Sunday that follows (August 16), Faith Tabernacle opens, to the shame of the devil and his cohorts. Don’t you see the laughter has started? We are laughing at the devil, we are laughing on the devil, and we are laughing upon the devil.
“What has changed? Nothing but Jesus! The gang-up of hell cannot prevail against it. What a joy that nothing has tampered with this joy. Shame on the devil! The revival fire is burning hot, hotter by the day,” said Oyedepo who emphasised that nothing can stop the church in Nigeria from moving forward.
However, sceptics are concerned that the COVID-19 protocols might be flouted, especially because worship centres accommodate people from all strata of society.
The Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, on Wednesday, said its branches in Lagos and Ogun states would not open until September.
A statement from the church reads:
“1. MFM Churches in Lagos and Ogun states will not open yet.
“2. We need to observe and properly appraise post-lockdown indices before opening our branches.
“3. We must be careful not to make any mistakes because all eyes will be on us.
“4. No deliverance program after opening.
“5. Tentative date to reopen is 13th of September.
“6. Compliance Committee has been constituted by the G.O.
“7. It is imperative for every branch to officially invite the Compliance Committee for evaluation of state of readiness.
“8. The Committee must issue a letter of authorisation before reopening.
“9. What is the committee coming to evaluate? Our compliance with the government guidelines !
“10. What are we expected to do?
Provision of wash hand basins with flowing tap water.
“11. One and half hours multiple service on Sunday only.
“12. Pastors who are 65 years and above should stay at home.
“13. No midweek programmes.
“14. 70 days fasting to start in September.”
Like MFM, other churches have also ruled out the possibility of opening on Sunday.
Pastor Chris Okotie of the Household of God also Thursday to announced that his church would not open despite the lift of the ban on worship activities.
The founder of the Synagogue Church of All Nations, Pastor T.B. Joshua, said his church would not begin service until he heard from God to do so.
The Overseer, Citadel Global Community Church (CGCC), Pastor Tunde Bakare, warned Christians not to let any religious leader or government official lead them like sheep to the slaughterhouse.
He wondered why the government should ask worship centres to re-open when they said this month would be the peak of the infection.
“Please keep safe and do your best to keep alive by keeping all the necessary rules. We know that by the grace of , this pandemic like the others before it has an expiry date. It shall not see our end. We shall see its end in the mighty name of Jesus,” he said.
Explaining that CGCC building would not open until the coast was clear, Pastor Bakare noted that the church of God was far beyond a building and cannot be shut.
The church, as it is known, has always been a place where people from all walks of life and different strata of the social ladder congregate in fellowship and share love without hitches.
Usually, hugs, handshakes, holding hands in prayers and having communion are some of the common practices in churches. For the Muslim faithful, common use of water kettles and mats are part of the rituals performed during Ju’mat prayers on Fridays.
They worry that worship centres, especially churches, may not be able to congregate at large, well-ventilated auditorium without flouting the Environmental Protection Laws with regard to noise pollution.
There are also concerns that the “no facemask, no entry” policy could heighten security risks as criminals since the masks mostly make wearers unidentifiable.
There is also the fear that wearing the masks for long hours in the enclosed auditorium could further endanger the health of the wearers since oxygen supply to vital body organs are blocked while humans are forced to inhale the same carbon dioxide they exhaled.
Expectedly, churches planning to re-open have started sending messages to their members which contain some of the rules that must be followed throughout the services inline with the government’s guidelines.
Among the practices expected to be altered are the modes of collecting offerings and tithes, which may now be done electronically or at stationery boxes with a well thought-out arrangement to prevent congestion and body contacts.
Also, the duration of the services or Mass may be breached to prevent worshippers from suffocating as a result of long use of face masks, just as handshakes, hugs and other forms of exchange of pleasantries that involve physical contacts must be prohibited.
A safety officer, Chijioke Obi, said it was long overdue but described the conditions as stringent.
“However, I think the stringent conditions deployed to the re-opening are wrong. We have really undermined the power of God all this while. We have given much attention to medical sciences that have not given us a solution. Why not try the God factor?
“Allow people to gather in their usual manner to pray and worship the Almighty God, then you will see what will happen. Give believers the benefit of the doubt. Safety will be upheld,” he said.