LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Church leaders in Ireland have welcomed the Northern Ireland Executive’s decision to allow churches to open for private prayer in its first phase of easing restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

In a letter to the First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, the leaders called the announcement “an important and much-needed sign of hope.”

The message was signed by Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, the Primate of All Ireland, as well as the heads of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Anglican Church of Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Irish Council of Churches.

Almost all denominations in Ireland are organized on an all-island basis, covering both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

When the United Kingdom went into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, all places of worship were closed to the public, even for private prayer. This was different than most European countries – including the Republic of Ireland – that only banned public worship, allowing churches to remain open for people to visit and pray.

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“Church buildings in Northern Ireland have been closed since 28th March by public order. That hasn’t been the situation in the Republic of Ireland,” Martin told BBC Ulster on Sunday. “We have a rather unusual situation, Archbishop John [McDowell of the Church of Ireland] and I, in that we would have perhaps some church buildings open south of the border but closed north of the border.”

Although the UK went into a coordinated lockdown, each constituent nation – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – is handling the reopening of their societies on an individual basis.

On Monday, the Northern Ireland executive announced a five-stage plan to ease its lockdown, although it did not provide dates for when it expected each stage to begin.

Stage 1 not only allows churches to open for private prayer, but also makes provisions for “drive thru” religious services. Stage 4 will allow regular church services, subject to social distancing requirements.

“As Church leaders, we appreciate the recognition in this recovery plan of the importance of the local church, and public worship, in the lives of many people,” the church leaders’ statement said.

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“A great flourishing of creativity and a strong community spirit has enabled local churches to continue to provide pastoral care and social outreach in spite of the restrictions, but there is a strong desire to increase the level of pastoral contact where that can be done safely,” it continued.

In particular, the leaders pointed to couples who are anxious to proceed with their weddings and from parents who wish to have their children baptized.

Speaking to BBC Ulster, Martin said couples continually phoning each week to enquire about these sacraments.

“We’re just waiting on word and we want to do so safely, we’re not clambering to break the rules.”

In the joint letter, the Christian leaders said they were “conscious that the Christian call to be good neighbors is a call to civic responsibility in the protection of public health.”

“As outlined in the Executive’s recovery plan, partnership across all sectors of society, in solidarity with the most vulnerable, will be critical to minimizing the threat of COVID-19, which is likely to be with us for some time. In our churches, we are currently undertaking risk assessments and putting in place response plans that reflect the unique circumstances of each local context and will be sustainable in the long-term,” the letter says.

The Christian leaders also used their message to welcome the opportunity to discuss the importance of protecting social cohesion in plans for recovery.

“During lockdown, the burden of suffering has not been shared equally, and the benefits of recovery will come more quickly to some than others. One of the signs of hope to emerge from this crisis has been the way local communities have pulled together in support of their most vulnerable members. That same spirit needs to shape a vision for recovery that leaves no one behind,” the letter says.

Speaking to BBC Ulster, Martin noted that the “drive-thru” church service being allowed by phase 1 of the reopening plan in Northern Ireland wasn’t something of interest to the Catholic Church.

“It really wouldn’t be something that would be part of the Catholic tradition and I don’t imagine it’s something that we would be looking at in any serious way,” the archbishop said.

“I do know, however that the idea of people being able to pay a visit to their church, to kneel in prayer, or to sit in prayer or light a candle, that is something which is very deeply part of Catholic devotion.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome