POLICE in Bulawayo yesterday arrested congregants of the Revival of Jesus Miracles Ministries in Nketa suburb for conducting public services in violation of lockdown regulations, as most churches resorted to conducting virtual services in compliance with the ban on public gatherings.
Nine congregants were arrested yesterday morning shortly after the church service and taken to Tshabalala Police Station where they each paid $500 admission of guilt fines.
When Chronicle visited the police station, congregants were being taken out of the cells where they had been detained to pay fines at the charge office.
Reverend Thompson Nyathi defended his congregants, arguing that their arrest was illegal as “we maintained hygienic standards and practised social distancing during the entire service. We are fully aware of the proclamation by the President of a total lockdown and ban on public gatherings, but we believe the raid was unlawful as our gathering had less than 30 people, some of whom were arrested after the service. Everyone had their hands sanitised in line with Ministry of Health and Child Care guidelines and regulations,” he said.
Rev Nyathi claimed that they were not the only ones who violated lockdown regulations.
“We were not the only church around that opened for service, but there are other churches some of which discreetly conducted services in houses, but unfortunately, we have just been targeted after police received a phone call from someone in the locality who notified them of our so-called illegal gathering,” he said.
“However, when police and soldiers came, they found that we had finished the service and most of the congregants had left the premises save for a few who were later arrested and taken to Tshabalala Police Station.”
Under the 21-day lockdown regulations, all public gatherings are banned, except for funerals where there should not be more than 50 people.
A Chronicle news crew moved around the city and observed that a number of churches had their gates under lock and key in compliance with lockdown regulations.
President Mnangagwa recently announced a nationwide lockdown as the country steps up efforts to confront the deadly Covid-19.
Before the announcement that left only a few essential services running, most churches had already announced the cancellation of services.
Several churches in Zimbabwe this year cancelled their traditional Easter retreats and resorted to live streaming their services during the 21-day lockdown.
Easter, also called Pascha (Greek, Latin) or Resurrection Sunday, is a festival and holiday when Christians will be commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus, described in the New Testament as having occurred on the third day after his burial following his crucifixion by the Romans at Calvary.
The cancellation of Easter church meetings follows a directive by President Mnangagwa banning gatherings and declaring the lockdown as a precautionary measure to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the country.
During the lockdown period all citizens are required to stay at home, except for essential movements to seek health services, buy food, medicines, other essentials and critical services.
Church leaders said the cancellation of public services during the Easter holiday is in compliance with lockdown regulations to combat the spread of the deadly global pandemic, which has so far claimed more than 110 000 lives with more than 1,8 million people infected globally. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has since declared Covid-19 a global pandemic.
Some that took to live streaming services on Facebook are struggling to keep the numbers as worshippers cannot afford data to watch services.
A majority of churches have resorted to opening groups for services and using the cheaper WhatsApp platform.
Chronicle observed some families following sermons on social media.
Rev Jabulani Mafohla, who is the District Superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene (Zimbabwe West District) and a pastor at Emganwini Church of the Nazarene, said they cancelled Easter gatherings and resorted to virtual services.
He said sermons on WhatsApp have enabled congregants to observe the most important services on the Christian calendar, Easter, marking the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “We delegated each other duties a week ago and this means we have someone who will record voice notes to deliver the sermon, teach Sunday School and conduct the devotion. These people are given ample time to prepare their sermons and teachings and they then record them on their phones before sending them to our church secretary who will in turn share them on various social media platforms with our congregants,” he said.
“On Sunday like this one, we have just finished our services for the day. We sing and then record that singing and share with others and we are doing these as families because of the lockdown, which was necessitated by Covid-19.”
He said it was important for Christians to continue partaking of the word despite the lockdown as the bible clearly states in Matthew 4 verse 4 that man cannot live on bread alone, but needs every word that comes from God’s mouth.
Rev Mafohla said virtual services were so successful that they could be adopted even beyond the lockdown for congregants who could not make it to church for various reasons.
“Through social media, our services have included members in UK, Binga and remote parts of the world. Everyone has received edification from God’s word. This Covid-19 could be a blessing in disguise as God’s word has reached people who were normally excluded from physical services,” he said.
Mr Samson Mukondo of the Apostolic Faith Church and his family of four conducted a family worship service at his home in Tshabalala.
“We are conducting this family worship service as we commemorate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our gate is locked and we are not allowing our children to go outside as part of the measures to combat the spread of the deadly coronavirus,” he said.
When the news crew arrived at Mr Mukondo’s house, journalists were sanitised at the entrance and the principle of social distancing was constantly maintained.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe (ELCZ) leader for the Western Diocese, Bishop Michael Dube said their Easter virtual services, which were livestreamed and shared on various social media platforms progressed well.
“We smoothly conducted our services and everything went according to our plan. However, sadly our congregants in rural communities missed out largely because of lack of access to modern communication tools,” he said.
Bishop Dube said they urged their followers to open WhatsApp groups for the purposes of sharing the sermons, scriptures and songs during the Easter holiday.
Harvest House International Church Leader Bishop Dr Colin Nyathi said they ran their virtual church services without any hurdle.
“We conducted our virtual services and shared them on YouTube and Facebook and our congregants also had an opportunity to listen and watch the sermons and bible teachings via livestreaming.”
The Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church said it adopted a lengthy period of long-distance worship with congregants encouraged to turn to digital platforms.
To promote social distancing and minimise the spread of the virus, members worshipped privately in their homes with the necessary support in the form of livestreaming, downloading or printed worship packages and sermons, which were availed to members through their pastors.
The Apostolic Faith Mission of Portland Oregon in Southern Africa urged its members to participate in its Easter meetings via WebEx, an application for web conferencing and videoconferencing.
Word of Life Church posted sermons and songs on their Facebook page.
Pope Francis and other Christian leaders gave their annual Easter addresses over the internet as churches stood empty and countries around the world continue to extend lockdowns to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The pontiff broke with centuries of tradition and livestreamed his Easter Sunday mass to allow the world’s 1,3 billion Catholics to celebrate their holiest holiday.
The church has also indefinitely suspended obligatory Mass for the vulnerable and banned some traditional church rituals such as shaking hands and receiving communion with one’s tongue to contain spread of coronavirus.
The Catholic Church regards the Easter period as obligatory, meaning congregants are compelled to attend every Mass and gathering during the period which starts with six weeks Lent until Easter Sunday.
The Zion Christian Church (ZCC) hosted its annual Easter Celebrations from small decentralised locations across the world in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and not from its Mbungo pilgrimage at the Mbungo shrine in Masvingo province.
The ZCC annual gathering at Mbungo had become one of the biggest church gatherings in the country attracting people from different parts of the world while enterprising business people and companies always cash in on the gathering. – Chronicle