By Yinka Odumakin
NIGERIANS are deeply God-believing people and the country would have been one of the best places to live in on earth if this were undergirded by a well-planned and organised society.
I saw this brilliant young girl on Channels TV shortly after the Lagos State put a ban on the gathering of more than 50 worshippers at a time following the outbreak of Coronavirus. She was graphically pointing at the failure of governance in banning crowds in worship places but leaving them inside BRT buses.
She pointed at one of such crowded buses and said: “How many of us crowd this bus? Yet, there are no masks and sanitisers in place. What is not being spread here? As for me I stay with the only thing that I know: Jesus”.
That is the extent to which people take solace in their relationship with the heavenly when the earthly cannot get it right. And you see that fervency here and there, among Christians, Muslims and traditional worshippers in our towns and villages.
Endangering faithful’s health
However, there is also the face of organised religion in our country that is worse than Coronavirus. With leadership and sanitiser in short supply, it is endangering faithful’s health by exposing them in defiance of regulations by government.
But before I go into the specifics of this face of religion in our country, let me admit that it is somewhat a global affliction we are dealing with as billions of people on earth are left vulnerable by a pandemic which both science, religion and politicians have very few answers to.
In Myanmar, a prominent Buddhist monk did announce that a dose of one lime and three palm seeds would confer immunity. In Iran, some pilgrims were filmed licking Shiite Muslim shrines to ward off Coronavirus infection. And in Texas, the preacher Kenneth Copeland had admixture of televangelism and telemedicine, as he claimed he could cure believers through their screens.
An Egyptian pharmacist, Ahmed Shaban, 31, travelled to Saudi Arabia recently to make a pilgrimage to Prophet Muhammad’s birthplace and tomb. Millions of Muslims visit the sites every year, many of them stopping to kiss the Kaaba, the black-and-gold cube in Mecca that is Islam’s holiest shrine. “In times of hardship, fear or panic,” Mr. Shaban said, “either you think, ‘How can God do this to us?’ or you run to Him for protection and for guidance, to make it all make sense.”
The day Mr. Shaban’s visit was to take place, the Saudi government suspended all pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina indefinitely just as Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem closed for prayer, making it a clean sweep: Islam’s three holiest sites were shut off.
Despite New York’s recent bans on large gatherings, several large weddings went ahead in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish communities, which have reported a spike in confirmed cases in recent days in a riddle about human beings. It has been five weeks without Mass across Italy. But in the Sicilian city of Palermo, the mountain sanctuary of Saint Rosalia, who is believed to have saved Palermo from a plague in 1625, has remained open.
Under current government order, Italians are not supposed to leave home except for emergencies. But the Rev. Gaetano Ceravolo, the sanctuary’s chief caretaker, said around 40 pilgrims had nevertheless trekked up to the shrine last Sunday, praying briefly and far apart from one another.
I have looked at some of these developments around the world to show that the phenomenon I am dealing with may not be a wholly Nigerian phenomenon though we may have our own peculiar mess. The first week of religious gatherings ban had its defiance in both mosques on Friday and churches on Sunday.
I saw a small church in Shagamu being put under lock and key by enforcing policemen but a big man of faith, Bishop David Oyedepo defied successfully. As early as 7.00 am, there were newspaper reports that members of his church were bussing people all over Lagos and Ogum states in overcrowded vans without sanitiser or masks in place.
When I called my wife’s attention to the development, her first reaction was that maybe the members were not aware of cancellation of service as Bishop Oyedepo was a conscious faith leader who would be above such guile. But it turned out that the Winners Chapel had a service in its 50,000 worshippers auditorium. Tongues wagged against the Bishop with some Nigerians calling for his arrest.
The church made a statement following the severe attacks against it. A statement by Steve Ogah, special assistant to David Oyedepo, founder of the church, said the service was actually held with less than half of its regular worshippers. “It has become necessary to issue this statement to clarify issues surrounding why Faith Tabernacle, Canaanland, the International Headquarters of Living Faith Church in Ogun State, held church service on Sunday, although with less than half of her regular worshippers,” he said.
“For avoidance of doubt, as stakeholders and as a responsible organisation, Living Faith Church fully supports and encourages compliance with all initiatives of government to combat the spread of this dreaded virus. However, information has to be strategically disseminated to the grassroot. The Church is a family and not an industry, it is for this reason that enlightenment and sensitisation from the church platform is a most effective way to get people involved in playing their part in terms of prayers and intercessions and not just staying away from church without knowing what to do.
“As we all know, the church is made up of both literate and illiterate congregants; many are not in touch with any of the modern platforms of communication and this is what we did yesterday. Indeed, the service was devoted entirely to sensitising and mobilising members of the church regarding the danger of this deadly virus and the need to comply with government directives.
“The Bishop has since engaged Ogun State Government at the highest level to clarify this issue and any misgivings and reiterated the full support of the church for the state government’s efforts to ensure public safety towards curtailing the spread of this deadly virus. He appreciates the opportunity of direct engagement and the understanding of the government.
“Cooperation to safeguard public safety is not just a moral obligation or civic responsibility; the church also considers it a spiritual duty. The church shall continue to engage all necessary logistics to ensure compliance with government directives and continue to pray for speedy divine intervention to stem this deadly virus.”
If Oyedepo and his church offered some lame excuse for their action, not so for the Katsina mosque that defied gathering ban six days after. At least, one person lost his life with a police station and the official quarters of a divisional police officer burnt down in Kusada, headquarters of Kusada Local Government Area of Katsina State.
The disturbance was caused by the arrest of a religious group leader who allegedly led a Friday prayer in the town despite the state government’s directive banning large gatherings to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Eyewitnesses said trouble started when one Mallam Hassan conducted Jumat prayer in one of the mosques in the town.
Hassan was consequently arrested and taken to the police Area Commander’s office in Malumfashi for questioning. The development did not go down well with some of his fanatic followers. The followers were said to have on Saturday attacked policemen on duty at Kusada Police Division and torched the police station and the DPO’s quarters.
They were alleged to have also burnt down seven vehicles and 10 motorcycles on the premises of the police station. The town was not accessible for several hours on Saturday because of the sad and unfortunate incident.
The spokesman for the police in Katsina, SP Gambo Isah, who confirmed the development gave details: “Recall that Katsina State Government under the leadership of Governor Aminu Bello Masari, issued restriction orders numbers SEC.2/T/3 and SEC.2/T/14 dated March 25 and 27, 2020 respectively, directing the total closure of its borders and suspension of large gatherings for the weekly Friday prayers and Sunday church services while marriage ceremonies are to be conducted in a low key across the state as part of measures taken to curtail the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Overpowering the policemen
“However, on Friday, March 27, 2020, some disgruntled youths under the leadership of one Mallam Hassan tested the will of the state and conducted a Friday prayer in one of the Kusada jummat mosques. Subsequently, he was arrested for questioning at Area Commander’s office, Malumfashi which did not go down well with some of his followers.
“Consequently, today (Saturday) around 9.00am, this particular group organised themselves in a tumultuous manner, attacked and overpowered the policemen on duty at Kusada Division, set ablaze the police station and the DPO’s quarters. They also burnt down seven vehicles and 10 motorcycles in custody of the police station.”
Isah stated that the Commissioner of Police in the state, Sanusi Buba, ordered the deployment of police patrol teams and a special joint security task force on the enforcement of public gatherings in the state to the area. “Ninety suspected rioters have been arrested while one of the rioters lost his life as a result of the encounter. Investigation is ongoing,” he added.
There has been no death reported from Coronavirus in Katsina State but religion has started claiming its victims. What a country!