S.Africans reluctant to return to places of worship despite lockdown easing

by Michelle GUMEDE
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Worshippers wearing facemasks attended Friday prayers at Johannesburg's Nizamiye Mosque after the government said religious services could resume from June 1

White plastic chairs are sprayed down with sanitiser and a smartly dressed cleaner says a prayer while dusting before a first service in her church in more than nine weeks.

President Cyril Ramaphosa gave places of worship across South Africa the greenlight to reopen from June 1 provided they could satisfy appropriate COVID-19 self-regulation measures.

But few have done so to date, with many worshippers hesitant to return for fear of catching the coronavirus.

"Our first service was today... we didn't have as many of our congregation members as usual," Pastor Sylvain Malindhva of Peniel ministries told AFP.

"The fear is there... a lot of people are still hesitating to come to the churches."

In Johannesburg's crowded business district, some small evangelical churches have opened up for services under strict government regulations including the wearing of masks and social distancing.

"God gave us also wisdom and intelligence. We can't just say because we are praying we are not going to observe those preventative measures," Malindhva said.

But many religious locals are opting to stay away.

- Strange space -

"I am praying at home, God hears me just fine when I pray at home with my family," 57-year-old vegetable seller Gloria Msibi told AFP.

"I love church but it is so dangerous to be in a closed space with so many people."

Since recording its first virus case on March 5, Africa's most modern nation has reported nearly 46,000 infections and 952 deaths, registering at least 1,000 new infections daily in recent days.

On Friday many South African mosques hosted their first prayers in more than two months.

"We usually stand shoulder to shoulder. Right now we have to give space which is kind of strange," IT technician Tunde Oladeji told AFP after prayers at a Turkish mosque in Midrand, north of Johannesburg.

"It is still better to be here than to be at home because praying in a mosque is really special."

A fellow congregant described the prayer session as both "emotionally and spiritually challenging."

"It is something different and so we have to adapt, and adapting is a challenge for some people. So it will take time, but hopefully ? we will get through this together."

- 'Not yet time' -

Lockdown forced tech savvy South Africans to seek out online worship, challenging the ordinary and mundane nature of many religious services.

"I've been streaming different sermons online... at first it was weird but now I am used to it," said 22-year old Ntokozo Zulu, a devoted Christian living with her elderly mother.

"It's a way to make sure that I still keep in touch with God," she said adding that for some people religion was a lifeline.

"I can bet people needed that close relationship with God during this tough coronavirus lockdown."

But the reopening of places of worship has sparked controversy with religious leaders themselves perplexed on how to resume safely.

In a letter to parishioners, clergy and bishops of the Anglican church, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba said there was a consensus that "it is not yet time to resume worship".

He said preliminary reports had shown many dioceses and parishes had raised concerns including the return of pensioners and clergy over 60-years old, what to do if more than 50 congregants arrive and how to respond if congregants begin singing or mingling spontaneously.

Calling for further engagement with the South African Council of Churches and the state, the archbishop said it would take time to gather the data needed before a decision to resume Anglican services can be made.

Even the Zion Christian Church, South Africa's largest operating church, has opted not to resume services despite the easing of restrictions.

Worshippers wearing facemasks attended Friday prayers at Johannesburg's Nizamiye Mosque after the government said religious services could resume from June 1

Though some evangelical churches have resumed services, the Anglican church has not with some believers -- such as these praying in a Johannesburg park -- fearing it is too early to be in a closed, crowded space

A man carrying a disposable prayer mat has his temperature checked outside the Nizamiye Mosque but many religious leaders say they need more guidance on how to resume worship safely