LEICESTER, United Kingdom – England’s leading prelate has praised the decision by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to allow churches and other places of worship to open for private prayer beginning June 15.

The United Kingdom went into lockdown on March 23 to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and ordered all places of worship to be closed to the general public.

Unlike many other European countries, such as Italy and Ireland, this order even included short visits for private prayer.

Johnson had announced on May 26 that non-essential shops would be allowed to reopen on June 15, drawing the ire of many religious leaders that places of worship were not included.

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A spokesman for the prime minister told the BBC Johnson understood the importance of having a place to “reflect and pray, to connect with their faith, and to be able to mourn for their loved ones” during the pandemic. The official announcement is expected to be made on Tuesday.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said in a statement he wasd grateful to the government for the decision.

“This is a first, measured step in restoring the more normal practice of our faith and will be welcomed by so many, who have waited with great patience since 23 March when our churches were closed, by Government decision, as part of the fight against this pandemic,” Nichols said.

“I thank everyone for that patience. It is important that every care is taken to ensure that the guidance given for this limited opening is fully observed, not least by those entering our churches. Our preparation is taking place with thoroughness. Visiting a church for individual prayer, benefitting from the sacredness of that space, can be done safely and confidently,” the cardinal continued.

Nichols said that not every Catholic Church will be open on June 15, and the decision to open individual churches will be made locally.

“This first step enables us to learn and prepare for those that will take us to a fuller use of our churches, for the celebration of Mass and other sacraments. We await that time with deep longing but patient understanding that the protection of the health of our society, especially of the most vulnerable, is a proper cause for caution and care,” he said.

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Robert Jenrick, the UK Communities Secretary, acknowledged the “enormous patience and forbearance” of the country’s religious communities, noting that Easter, Passover, Ramadan and Vaisakhi were all disrupted by the lockdown.

“As we control the virus, we are now able to move forwards with a limited but important return to houses of worship,” he told the BBC.

Johnson’s decision only applies to England, since easing lockdown restrictions is under the competency of the United Kingdom’s devolved governments. Northern Ireland allowed churches to open for private prayer last month; an opening date for places of worship hasn’t been announced for Scotland or Wales.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome