LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Northern Ireland’s decision to close churches for two weeks beginning Nov. 27 is a “great disappointment,” according to Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

The announcement was made by the Northern Irish Executive on Thursday evening, after Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, said rising infection rates for the COVID-19 coronavirus meant a “circuit break” was needed for the North.

“I’m not pretending these are easy decisions. I regret we had to act but that’s what we had to do,” Foster said on Friday.

In addition to churches, non-essential retail establishments and restaurants will also be closed.

Churches will still be allowed to hold weddings and funerals with limited numbers of people, although it is unclear whether or not they will be allowed to remain open for private prayer.

Martin said the announcement “has come as a great disappointment, and is contrary to the assurances given to faith groups at a meeting just last week at which we were praised for our attention to safety and public health.”

The archbishop also sought “urgent clarification” on the question of whether churches may open for individual visits and private prayer.

“Our parishes have consistently tried to support the Executive and public health authorities and we will do so again, but we would prefer to do so in mature partnership and dialogue,” he said.

“The Catholic Church always wishes to protect health and life and promote the Common Good and therefore will continue to play its part in making the necessary sacrifices, but we urgently request that the ban on public worship will be for the shortest period possible,” Martin continued. “This issue was the subject of debate during the first lockdown and we were confident that it was understood that Churches are places of sanctuary, calm, and spiritual strength during this crisis.”

The archbishop also noted the rules for the circuit break seemed to favor commercial activity over religious observance.

“I cannot understand how a person may still go to an off-licence [liquor store] to buy alcohol but might not be permitted to visit and sit in quiet solitary prayer in a large church. The right to do this is particularly important for Catholics,” Martin said.

He also noted the restrictions will coincide with the beginning of Advent, “a sacred time of preparation for Christmas.”

“In speaking about ‘saving Christmas,’ I urge the Executive to accept that for many people a ‘meaningful Christmas’ is about more than shopping, eating and drinking.  Spiritual preparation is essential,” the archbishops said.

Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is a devolved responsibility in the United Kingdom. England entered into a four-week lockdown closing churches for public worship on Nov. 5, and Wales reopened churches for public worship after a two-week “firebreak” ended Nov. 9. Meanwhile, areas in Scotland under “Tier 4” restrictions can hold religious services limited to 20 people.

In the Republic of Ireland, churches have been closed for public worship since the last week in October.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome