THE leaders of Ireland's main Churches have said that now is not the time for church buildings to re-open for collective worship but appealed for restrictions on individual visits for private prayer to be eased "sooner rather than later".
Church buildings have been closed since the middle of March as part of the social distancing measures introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19.
The Northern Ireland Executive is this week to turn its attention to mapping a way of lockdown, and there has been speculation that church gatherings should be among the first public meetings allowed to resume.
Environment minister Edwin Poots last week suggested that churches should be allowed to open immediately; other executive ministers distanced themselves from the comments, including health minister Robin Swann who said Northern Ireland has not yet reached the point at which coronavirus restrictions could be lifted.
The leaders of the Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church and the Irish Council of Churches have now also made clear that they do not believe that church gatherings should resume "at this time".
"We are not calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to remove the current general restrictions on gathering together for church services, but we are asking that the issue is kept under regular review, so that when it is safe to do so there can be an easing of these restrictions," they said in a joint statement.
However, they drew a distinction between collective, public worship and personal, private prayer.
"The issue of church buildings being permitted to open for individual visits and private prayer, where this is desired locally and can be done so safely with appropriate social distancing in place, is however a different and a separate matter," they said.
"Where the medical and scientific advice indicates that this limited step is possible, we would urge the Executive to consider easing this particular restriction sooner rather than later."
Catholic Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin emphasised that the Churches were speaking with one voice on the re-opening issue.
He told The Irish News that "Church leaders do not want buildings open for Sunday services or Masses" at this time.
But Dr Martin - who yesterday marked seven years as Archbishop of Armagh - said he had been moved by the support from other Churches for private prayer to be resumed.
"I, as leader of the Catholic Church, take great consolation from the fact that my brothers and sisters in the other Christian traditions recognise that particularly for Catholics, individual visits and private prayer inside church buildings is very much part of our tradition," he said.
"We do consider churches a sacred space even when they are empty because of the Real Presence of the Eucharist in the Tabernacle.
"Therefore it's very much part of the tradition in the Roman Catholic Church for people to pay a private visit to their church for prayer and praise before the Blessed Sacrament."
Dr Martin noted that since March 23, church buildings have been closed in Northern Ireland by public order, but not in the south.
"In Northern Ireland a lot of my parishioners and flock would be feeling that absence - when they are out on their walk, for example - of being able to pop in and say a prayer," he said.
This, he said, should happen only where "social distancing can be assured and good cleaning can be put in place".
"That will be an individual decision for individual parishes," he said.
"When you lock the doors of a church there is a visceral symbolic statement being made.
"Even though the numbers will probably be extremely small, I would really like the churches in Northern Ireland were open for private worship."
This would also allow a consistency in a cross-border diocese such as Armagh, he added.
In a five-stage plan announced by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Friday, places of worship could re-open by July 20.
Dr Martin said the proposed date was "not something we've had the opportunity to discuss as Church leaders nor as Catholic Church leaders".
However, dioceses were "imagining what it might be like to gradually re-open our churches".
"We know this is some time off, but it's a process that every organisation is doing - how might we go back to 'normal'?" he said.
"The words that will characterise this are 'small', 'slow' and 'gradual'," he said, adding: "Collective worship will only begin in small numbers."
Asked about the sacraments, including confession, the Archbishop said "it's clear to me that we have a responsibility not to be gathering people".
"But the sacraments have never really stopped," he said.
"I have heard confessions. People out for their walk have waved over to me and said, 'Archbishop, could you hear my confession?'
"We're outside, we're in a private area, we're at a suitable distance... and this sacrament has continued.
"What we can't do is gather people inside a confessional box and have them queue up."
Dr Martin said that he could envisage baptisms and weddings with small numbers, and in line with government restrictions and health advice, happening as time goes on, "but not yet".
"I'm hopeful that we can allow people to experience 'church' again," he said.
"Church is about gathering; at the moment we are relying on the virtual spiritual communion that we can maintain over the webcams - and that is extremely good - but I would love for people to have the opportunity very soon to come to church in quiet, private prayer."