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A small group of Muslim clerics pray before looking for the crescent moon which will signal the start of the month of Ramadan, in Seapoint on April 23, 2020, in Cape Town.RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images

A decision to allow religious gatherings in South Africa, after a two-month lockdown, has triggered a national debate over the political power of church leaders and the health hazards of places of worship.

South Africa’s lockdown has been one of the world’s strictest. In addition to closing schools and most businesses, it also banned the sale of alcohol and cigarettes and prohibited any outdoor exercise for most of the lockdown period.

The tough measures seemed to curtail the rise in COVID-19 cases, winning praise from global health experts. But now, even as the pandemic begins to accelerate again in the country, the government is preparing to reopen most of the economy – and many South Africans were shocked to learn on Tuesday night that the doors will be opened for religious gatherings of up to 50 people, beginning next week.

Scientists, politicians, media commentators and even some religious leaders are criticizing the decision. Many are citing it as a defeat for South Africa’s science-based strategy. Some are highlighting the vast financial and political influence of church leaders, who often have close links to the ruling African National Congress.

The uproar is further fuelled by reports of “super-spreader” incidents in which church gatherings have led to scores of new coronavirus cases in South Korea, Germany, France and even in South Africa itself before the lockdown.

“We are told that the real COVID storm is yet to come, so why invite accelerated infections by opening churches for worship?” asked Peter Storey, former bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and former leader of the South African Council of Churches, in a tweet.

“What on earth possessed you?” he said, addressing South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. “I’m fairly sure that God can do without life-threatening gatherings singing praises, and wants instead to see people of faith on the front line of ministries of service to the suffering, the poor and the hungry.”

Mr. Ramaphosa, in his speech to the country, said the shutdown of religious gatherings had “worsened the distress of communities who are unable to worship in congregation.” Religious leaders should be recognized as “essential” front-line workers “for purposes of spiritual counselling,” he said.

All worshippers will be required to wear face masks and observe physical-distancing rules, he said.

While many church leaders welcomed Mr. Ramaphosa’s announcement, others were more critical.

The Jesuit Institute South Africa, a Catholic organization, said the reopening of religious gatherings seems illogical. “This sudden, seemingly rushed move is questionable,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.

Even when distancing rules are enforced, infections have occurred in places of worship around the world, the Jesuit Institute said. “The more people mix, the more there is potential for spread. Places of worship are not immune to the virus.”

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, representing the Jewish community, said it wasn’t sure whether to support the reopening. “At this stage, from what we’ve heard, we are concerned about the opening of places of worship,” said Mary Kluk, president of the board of deputies, in an interview with eNCA television.

“Particularly with the medical advice we’re getting, that at this time in our country we are particularly vulnerable, is the timing right now?”

She cited reports that a single church service in Frankfurt, Germany, on May 10 had resulted in 107 cases of COVID-19 in the surrounding area – even though the church had followed strict government rules on the number of people attending and required 1½ metres of space between congregants.

In South Africa, at least 67 people tested positive for the coronavirus after hundreds had attended a prayer breakfast in Free State province in mid-March. Authorities had to trace and test more than 1,600 people who had come into contact with those who tested positive.

One of South Africa’s chief scientists on pandemic forecasting, the epidemiologist Harry Moultrie, said the decision to allow religious gatherings was “utterly irrational.” Because of a shortage of test kits, the physical-distancing strategy was “all we had left,” he said on Twitter. “And now that has been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.”

Political analyst Karima Brown said the ANC was worried about a rebellion by church leaders if it didn’t allow a reopening. The government has “capitulated to the business interests of churches who are extremely powerful and extremely good allies for political parties in elections,” she said on Johannesburg’s Radio 702 on Wednesday.

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