Thousands of Gauteng worshippers felt the first pain of the government’s stringent coronavirus regulations as police cracked down on hot-spot churches which allegedly sought to defy the law.
On Sunday, police were stationed outside the St John’s Apostolic Faith Mission Church – head-quartered in Katlehong, Ekurhuleni – after the provincial government obtained a court order to restrain the church from hosting its regular festival over the weekend.
Thousands of worshippers from across the country and southern Africa were expected to attend the festivities, and tent structures erected for the weekend were still being taken down when The Star visited on Sunday.
Last week, in a gazetted regulations signed by Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, banned all gatherings which exceeded 100 people.
The Ministry of Health on Sunday said the number of infections had reached 274.
On Friday, the Gauteng Health Department said it had to go to court to interdict St John’s from hosting its festival following a tip-off from community members that the church allegedly wanted to defy the government regulations.
Anyone who violates the regulations faces arrest, a fine or both.
However, in a video-recorded statement sent to The Star on Sunday church leader Lady Archbishop Maragu said St John’s had already taken a decision on Tuesday to cancel the festival following a meeting it had with a provincial government delegation.
Maragu said many congregants had already arrived early at the church for the festivities.
“I went and relayed the message to the congregation at around 11 pm (on Tuesday) that the festival is canceled, and that those who could return home the following day should do so. We also decided to tell church members who were still making their way to either not come or turn back and go home,” Maragu said.
“Those we couldn’t reach would be informed, upon their arrival, to leave their luggage in their vehicles, and only come inside the church to pray and return home. The congregants who are still here at the church bought single-trip tickets, and are now waiting for their children to send them transport money so they can go home,” she said.
Maragu said the church would adhere to regulations and not have more than 100 people at any of its four services, which were held daily.
Gauteng police spokesperson Brigadier Mathapelo Peters confirmed on Sunday that police were on the ground monitoring churches and liquor establishments, which have been told not to have more than 50 people inside, including closing at 6 pm from Monday to Saturday, and 1 pm on Sundays and public holidays.
“Given the recent gazetting of the regulations, we will… do a consolidated report (of our operations) for the whole country as soon as possible,” Peters said.
St John’s has three major festivals a year in March, August, and November. Church spokesperson Sello Tsubele told The Star that they were expecting 5 000 worshippers to attend.
Meanwhile, renowned gospel artist Reverend Benjamin Dube’s High Praise Centre in Vosloorus, Ekurhuleni, church, which has a membership of 1500 people, said yesterday that its congregants were angry over the regulations. Leaders from Dube’s church were stationed outside and locked the gate once 100 people were inside, which drew the ire of some congregants.
Irene Sibiya, a manager in Dube’s office, said the four services would all be kept within what the law prescribed.
Rights group CRL called for all religious leaders to adhere to the regulations to avoid being arrested.