New Zealand’s Catholic bishops have written a strongly worded letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, asking her to allow faith services to have at least 100 people present as the country enters its next level of the country’s easing of COVID-19 coronavirus restrictions.
New Zealand has received international praise for its’s handling of the crisis, where only 1,154 were infected and 21 died. The coronavirus is considered almost eliminated in the country, although the government is still taking measure to prevent it from reigniting, including track-and-trace measures.
According to government regulations, worship services are limited to groups of 10, excluding funerals. In addition, records of who attends a service must be kept for the purposes of contact tracing.
The Catholic bishops of the country said they were “disappointed” by the decision, considering “the lack of similar restrictions on restaurants, bars, clubs and brothels, which operate under circumstances somewhat more difficult for contact tracing and distancing.”
“On behalf of Catholic parish leaders, Priests and parishioners, and indeed members of all faith organizations of Aotearoa [New Zealand], we urge you to consider raising the number allowed to gather for faith services to at least 100,” the bishops wrote in a May 22 letter.
“We do recognize however that faith communities have certainly had time to prepare and consider how to hold services that meet health guidelines. Less than 100 people would pose a significant challenge to our large, diverse communities where there is certainly space for 100 people or more with distancing,” the bishops explained.
The bishops said even limits of 20 or 50 people would mean turning people away, saying that “at the heart of all faith communities in New Zealand is welcome and support for all.”
“Further, we would not wish to ask faith leaders to hold more services, overburdening those that already put unceasing energy into providing pastoral support to their communities. We also have every confidence that our smaller parishes will restrict numbers if they are not able to accommodate the permitted maximum in a safe manner,” the bishops said.
They also noted that the New Zealand police said in May 20 guidelines that a church service is not a “gathering” if groups of 10 are seated more than 2 meters apart from each other, and therefore wouldn’t fall under the government’s strict regulations. This advice was overruled later by New Zealand’s Ministry of Health, which insisted on the 10-person limit.
“Our faith communities have been making the necessary preparations. They are aware they can only reopen when all the health guidelines can be strictly followed,” the bishops wrote.
“We have had faith in the Government and health authority restrictions to date. We ask the same courtesy that the Government has faith in our faith communities,” the letter said.
The New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Conference executive officer Siobhan Dilly said the bishops are looking forward to the prime minister’s comments on religious gatherings due to take place on Monday.
“Given the difficulties many parishes would have in arranging at this short notice a Mass this weekend that would meet the Police guidelines, the bishops will be discussing the issue with parish leaderships and others over the weekend, in the hope of being able to make a definitive announcement on Monday after hearing from the Prime Minister,” she said.