Northern Ireland news

Safe public worship not 'a source of contagion', says Archbishop Eamon Martin

Churches have made a mammoth effort to be safe, Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin has said. St Mary's Church in Belfast city centre is among those to introduce measures to limit congregations. Picture by Hugh Russell

PARISHES have been making "a mammoth effort" to keep churches as safe as possible for public worship amid the coronavirus pandemic, Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin has said.

"At all times the Church has been following the government guidance and been supportive of the advice and messaging of the public health authorities," he said.

"Since the spring lockdown parishes have been making a mammoth effort to ensure that public worship takes place as safely as possible - with major restrictions on numbers attending, safe social distancing, sanitisation and very regular and thorough cleaning."

When the Stormont Executive introduced tougher Covid-19 restrictions last month, it decided that places of worship should remain open.

But as the north's public health authorities continue to grapple with the virus and consider whether further restrictions are needed, there have been calls to follow the Republic, England and Wales into a further period of lockdown.

Dr Tom Black, a Derry GP who chairs the British Medical Association's Northern Ireland Council, this week called on the executive to keep the hospitality sector closed and introduce a fresh shutdown of non-essential shops, churches and gyms.

He said that schools should remain open but that he sees "no argument for places of worship, gyms, non-essential retail and certainly not for hospitality... to remain open during the worst pandemic and the biggest second wave we’ve ever seen".

As part of its Level 5 restrictions, churches across the Republic have been closed for public worship - private prayer is still permitted - since October 21, though they have been closed for longer in some places.

In Dublin, for example, churches have been shut - except for private prayer, weddings and funerals - since September 19.

Church leaders have been lobbying politicians to ease the restrictions on places of worship, arguing that they are regulated, safe environments, and last week Ireland's four Catholic Archbishops met with Taoiseach Micheál Martin to argue their case.

Churches in the north, meanwhile, were given permission to reopen from the end of June, subject to strict social distancing and other safety measures.

Archbishop Eamon Martin said the Catholic Church has been 'supportive of the advice and messaging of the public health authorities'

Archbishop Martin said there was frequent contact between the Churches and the Executive Office at Stormont about the public health situation.

"We are not aware of evidence that safe public worship is a source of contagion," he said.

"The Catholic Archbishops made these points to the Taoiseach at a recent meeting, pointing out that public worship was suspended in Republic of Ireland at Level 3 without meaningful consultation with the Church and faith leaders."

The Archbishop said that public worship was "not like other 'gatherings'".

"It is a profound expression of who we are as church and it is essential to the spiritual health of individuals, parishes and society as a whole," he said.

"Gathering safely for worship is helping many people and their families find the consolation and hope they need to survive through these very difficult times of anxiety, uncertainty, bereavement or illness due to the pandemic."

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