By John Cardinal ONAIYEKAN
Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja.
The COVID-19 pandemic has descended on humanity like a massive deadly attack from an unknown invisible enemy. All human lines of defense and attack have so far proved inadequate. The fact is that we have all been groping in the dark, with largely trial and error measures from our many self proclaimed “experts”.
Many of the drastic containing measures put forward by the experts and imposed on us by our government have now proved to be not sustainable over time, and for the poor simply impracticable. To a large extent, it seems we are before a hopeless situation and we can only wait for the worst to befall us.
But for the believer in God, which most of us in this country are, there can be no room for despair, since we believe in a God that has never ceased to be in full control of his creation. We must therefore take seriously our faith in Him as an Almighty and Merciful God, who wishes nothing but what is good for his creatures, especially for humanity. In this regard, it is more than time to reopen our churches and mosques for worshippers to gather as a group of believers seeking the presence of God. I will now make a case for this in form of brief points as follows:
- Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, which includes the freedom to gather for worship. It is a right that must not be denied unless for very serious reason and superior purpose.
- Our government, following what it calls “experts” and “international best practices”, has forced on us the suspension of this important right of gathering for worship. We have been told that this is a matter of life and death. We are told that our gathering would endanger the lives of not only our congregations but of the entire nation as well. There was no room for any argument. We succumbed to the imposition, not because we were convinced, but because we do not want anyone to heap on us responsibility for any disastrous outcome of this crisis through other causes.
- Now, after more than six weeks of lockdown, we have all learnt some lessons – and are in a better position to express our minds. That is why we are now raising questions about the validity of the suspension of our right to gather for worship. We are not speaking about sitting in our homes to follow religious programs on the electronic media. We don’t need anybody’s permission for that!
- Let it be clear that no-one, whether in government or among experts, is more concerned than us for the safety of our congregations and of our countrymen and women. We should therefore be trusted to observe due precautions in our places of worship.
- The decision of government to start relaxing the stringent measures in some institutions is not simply giving in to any unreasonable public pressures. It is the right thing to do. We cannot continue to apply a “remedy” that is worse than the ailment. The PTF did well to take a second look at the measures it rolled out almost two months ago.
- On a more practical level, if government finds reasons to relax measures for banks, markets and farms, there is no reason why churches and mosques should be excluded from the same special consideration. In this regard, it should be noted that:
• For very many people, attendance at worship is as essential, if not more so, than the above mentioned places.
• In our places of worship, we are in a better position to control our gatherings than what we have been seeing in the banks and markets.
• If we have been praying individually and in the family virtually through the electronic media, this in no way makes up for congregational prayers and religious services. Our people have been kept away from these “essential services” already for too long, and they have been putting pressures on us to ensure that their rights in this matter are restored without any further delay.
7. Therefore we are making a case for a gradual restoration of our rights to gather in places of worship. In this regard, we note that:
- We have not experienced any major calamity from the exceptions already made for banks and markets, despite the considerable confusion mentioned above.
- Religious gatherings are not just any kind of gathering. It is the normal avenue to access God’s intervention in our lives. For most Nigerians, God is more real than the claims of the experts that it seems our government has ben relying so much on.
- It is not a return to the previous crowded worship congregations. We are asking for a gradual relaxation of the existing rules, on the responsibility of the religious leaders themselves who will ensure necessary precautions.
- Since we seem to have been following what others have been doing, “in line with international best practices”, we should take note of what has been happening in those countries that we have been citing and following. For example, Italy and Spain, despite their continued daily mortalities, are now opening for worship gatherings, with directives that meets the need for the containment of the virus. The directives were drafted by the church and agreed upon by the government.
It should be clear by now that COVID-19 is not only a medical issue. It does not seem to me wise for government to be relying on medical experts alone. We have seen the economic and serious social fallouts, especially of the lockdown measures. I plead that the religious dimension be given more serious attention, especially as religion impacts every aspect of the life of most Nigerians. It is unwise, and even unscientific, to deny or neglect the impact of faith and prayers in the healing process, especially in the case of this virus for which no sure scientific solution has yet been found.
About a month ago, prophets of doom were predicting that we would by now be picking corpses along the streets of Lagos and Abuja, since it was clear that we would not be able to observe the solutions that were considered necessary. If we are to be truthful, we must admit that the lockdown rule has been largely futile. Regular washing of hands has been a luxury that only very few can afford. As for distancing, we only need to go to the villages and urban slums to see how our people are living in their packed poor shelters. Our scientists will do well to study how come the predicted calamity has not come to pass, despite our woeful lack of compliance with “international best practices”. Whatever the reason, I am sure that it is not only because of the actions or inactions of the PTF or of the NCDC.
On a final note, it is most gratifying that our government is finally starting to look at the many alternative remedies that our local scientists, both traditional and modern, have been putting forward. Our local efforts may succeed where foreigners have so far failed, if given the necessary encouragement. But all efforts eventually will depend on God who alone is the Healer. We shall continue to pray to Him, to save us from this invisible enemy.