Easing of restrictions on religious events being considered: Ramaphosa
'It is understandable that after more than a year of labouring under restrictions, the faith community are keen for a return to a semblance of normality'
The government is considering easing lockdown regulations in preparation for the Easter, Pesach and Ramadan religious holidays from this weekend, President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday.
The announcement follows an “extremely constructive” virtual meeting the president had with leaders of the faith community who could not host any services last year due to the pandemic.
“It is understandable that after more than a year of labouring under restrictions on religious gatherings, the faith community are keen for a return to a semblance of normality,” said Ramaphosa.
“A number of religious organisations have asked that some of the existing restrictions on the size of congregations be eased, especially as we prepare for Easter and Ramadan observances. Government is currently deliberating on these and other issues, and will make an announcement in the coming days.”
The country is currently under alert level 1. Churches are permitted to operate with a maximum of 100 people allowed indoors or 250 outdoors. In an instance where a venue cannot take the prescribed numbers with 1.5m social distancing, no more than 50% of the capacity of the venue may be used, according to current regulations.
The president acknowledged the important role that faith-based organisations played in the country's national response to the disease, not only providing spiritual comfort and guidance, but also by caring for those most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, including through the provision of food, shelter and other social services.
“Religion plays an important role in the lives of millions of South Africans, and congregational worship forms a vital part of their religious practice.”
Churches have also suffered major financial blows, according to Ramaphosa.
“Another important factor is that during the various alert levels, religious organisations have incurred substantial financial losses that threaten their sustainability. As government we remain committed to working with the faith community to find workable solutions.”
Though a decision had not yet been made, the president emphasised that public health and safety had to take priority as the country was not yet out of the woods.
He cautioned that large gatherings had a potential to spread the virus, despite the application of measures around social distancing and sanitising.
“We are now at a time where precaution is needed above all. The coronavirus pandemic has not been eliminated, either in our own country or around the world. The threat of a third wave is real and ever-present.
“International experience has taught us that we should not tempt fate. Many countries have eased restrictions, only for there to be resurgences, necessitating the imposition of even harsher restrictions,” he said.
The president applauded the innovation and initiative shown by the religious community to provide for worship at a time when there was a great deal of uncertainty over the trajectory of the pandemic.
“Congregational services were held online and worshippers were encouraged to pray in their homes instead of attending services. This greatly aided the national effort to contain the spread of the disease. Religious leaders played a pivotal role in encouraging public adherence to health measures around important customary and cultural rituals like burials.
“By equal measure, our people have demonstrated their commitment to adhering to public health protocols and to social distancing. And they correctly appreciate that they must continue to avoid large gatherings,” added Ramaphosa.