Monday, 29 March 2021

Pretoria: With experts warning about a looming third wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa has encouraged faith communities to be innovative when they hold the upcoming Easter, Passover and Ramadan services.

He urged congregational worship to be innovative as it was last year.

“Large gatherings, whether religious or otherwise, have the potential to spread the virus, despite the application of measures around social distancing and sanitising,” President Ramaphosa.

The President remarks comes as millions of South Africans of faith will join others across the world in important religious observances.

These include Jewish faith members who will be celebrating Pesach, Christians who will observe Easter, and Muslims who will soon start the holy month of Ramadan.

For the second year in a row, faith communities will mark these occasions in the midst of a devastating global pandemic that has cost the lives of more than 2.5 million people across the world.

In his weekly newsletter published on Monday, President Ramaphosa noted that in a country that enshrines the right to religious freedom, “all effort must be made to support our people in the exercise of this right”.

“In exercising this right, we need to make sure that we do not place the rights or the lives of others at risk. This is a principle that the religious leaders I met with fully support and appreciate.

“Like Martin Luther, they understand the responsibility of all people of faith – indeed of all South Africans – to observe the practical measures put in place to protect people’s health and save lives,” President Ramaphosa said.

He said that faith-based organisations have been vital to the country’s national response to COVID-19, not only providing spiritual comfort and guidance, but also by caring for those most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic. This includes 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. Being able to gather for religious services is also a welcome respite from a period of great hardship for individuals, families and communities.

“It is understandable that after more than a year of labouring under restrictions on religious gatherings that the faith community are keen for a return to a semblance of normality. In recognition of the importance of congregational worship to the lives of our people, government has been engaging with the faith community,” the President said.

The President recently held a constructive virtual meeting with leaders of the faith community, and the leaders understand and appreciate the very real danger of a new wave of COVID-19 infections.

Precautionary measures

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, religious organisations have taken proactive and positive measures to limit the spread of the disease among worshippers.

“In the light of these precautionary measures, 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.

“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,” said the President.

The President said public health and safety must be of paramount consideration.

“The religious community has shown innovation and initiative in the holding of worship at a time when there was a great deal of uncertainty over the trajectory of the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, the President said the country is now at a time where precaution is needed above all, warning that the Coronavirus pandemic has not been eliminated.

“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.”

The President said that for more than a year, government has worked together with society to contain the pandemic, and “now as we work to overcome it, we need to reaffirm our shared determination to act responsibly and cautiously”.

“In doing so, we will be giving practical effect to the universal messages of hope, salvation, freedom and solidarity that will be spoken of in the churches, synagogues, mosques and homes of our land in the days and weeks ahead.” said the President.