The way leaders react to situations of emergency defines the character of such leadership. Take for instance, this raging new Coronavirus pandemic. Italy, Saudi Arabia and Iran are home to some of the holiest religious sites in the world.
When COVID-19 hit, the city of Rome on March 12, 2020, temporarily closed all churches till April 3, 2020, a step that Church historian, Father Johannes Grohe of Rome’s Santa Croce University, said: “has never happened before”.
The Catholic authorities not only complied with this, they even suspended congregational activities in all churches in the stricken country, which reverberated here in Nigeria over the weekend with the gates of churches closed to worshippers.
A similar thing happened in the Muslim world. The Saudi authorities suspended the lesser Hajj (Umrah). Also, the holding of daily and weekly prayers was shelved throughout the country, even in the revered Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina. Even the Ka’aba was temporarily shut for sanitisation against the coronavirus.
But in Iran, despite the fact that the disease had killed over 1,000 people and infected over 16,000 by March 17, 2020, hardliners defied the theocratic government’s closure of key worship sites such as the shrines of Hazrat Masoumeh and Imam Reza in Qom and Mashhad.
Here in Nigeria, while most of the orthodox churches suspended congregational worship to protect their members, some of the leaders of Pentecostal churches instructed their members to shun the directives by the Federal and state governments to limit activities in places of worship as “no plague” shall come near them.
For this, many churches and mosques and even event centres were in full operation last weekend. Officials of the Lagos State Government implementing the restriction order disclosed on Monday that they received 70 calls by residents reporting crowded social activities.
The stringent calls for voluntary social distancing to curb the spread of the virus continue to fall on many deaf ears with the support of some misguided and selfish faith leaders.
Though we fully subscribe to the constitutional right of citizens to freedom of worship and association, we are on the same page with all governments which have taken steps to reduce COVID-19 infection through temporary restriction of crowds in public spaces.
Prevention is not only better than cure, it is also cheaper. If only our faith leaders could imagine the grim cost of an Italy-scale COVID-19 spread in Nigeria, they would join the rest of the world and save their members and humanity from damnation.
The authorities may be forced to explore stiffer options, whereby law enforcement agencies will have to disperse worshippers by force. We hope it will not come to that, but if it does, so be it.
Safety must come first.