Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney has praised the government of the Australian state of New South Wales for putting churches on equal terms with pubs and restaurants, and allowing religious services involving up to 50 people beginning June 1.

Australia has had one of the most successful campaigns against the COVID-19 pandemic, with only 7,155 confirmed cases with 103 fatalities. On May 8, the government announced a three-stage plan for lifting the lockdown imposed in March to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Churches have had a limit of 10 people in attendance, a fifth of that allowed at other public venues, and the archdiocese started a petition stating: “Contrary to what has been said throughout this pandemic, we do not consider church attendance to be non-essential; indeed, nothing is more essential than the practice of our faith. Premier, Catholics are not asking for special treatment, we are asking for equal treatment.”

The petition received over 20,000 signatures in two days.

The New South Wales government said it was treating churches differently because houses of worship had played a key part in the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in different places around the world. It announced it was reversing course on Friday morning.

Fisher said this was a “victory for common sense.”

“The closure of our churches and indeed of all places of worship has been deeply distressing for many people of faith in our community. It added to the isolation and anxiety that so many were feeling,” he told The Catholic Weekly on May 29.

“With restrictions easing, many were concerned that the churches were being left behind and wanted to make their voices heard. People of faith weren’t asking for special treatment, but wanted to be treated equally,” the archbishop continued.

In a statement, Fisher credited the “wonderful result” to the “tens of thousands of you stood up and made your desire to return to church known.”

“You weren’t asking for special treatment, you were asking for equal treatment, and you prevailed,” he said.

“Thank you for making your voices heard. Your swift and overwhelming response has demonstrated what can happen when we stand up for the freedom to practice our faith, and to be treated equally,” the archbishop added.

However, Fisher noted that churches still face unequal rules in other states in Australia, and announced he was revising the petition to call on all Australian state governments “to treat people of faith fairly and equally.”