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Northern Ireland church leaders urge politicians to consider easing coronavirus restrictions

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Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop John McDowell

Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop John McDowell

Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop John McDowell

The leaders of Northern Ireland's main Churches have urged politicians to consider easing restrictions on private prayer in church buildings "sooner rather than later".

In a joint statement, the leaders of the Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church and the Irish Council of Churches, said they accept that now is not the time for "a full return" to collective worship in our Churches.

However, they asked for the issue to be reviewed regularly.

"The issue of church buildings being permitted to open for individual visits and private prayer, where this is desired locally and can be done so safely with appropriate social distancing in place, is however a different and a separate matter," they said.

"Where the medical and scientific advice indicates that this limited step is possible, we would urge the Executive to consider easing this particular restriction sooner rather than later."

Last week, Stormont minister Edwin Poots suggested there could be a phased reopening of churches with the capacity to implement social distancing. He said any changes would only be made in line with medical and scientific advice, but that ministers were aware of the negative impact the rules were having on the public.

Mr Poots, who attends a church with 700 seats, said: "If we can facilitate social distancing, can we do it? That's a reasonable question to ask."

Speaking yesterday, new Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop John McDowell said Churches did not want to have any "special treatment", but would like to be considered on their own merits.

"There are lots of things impacted by what is going on right now, and things of course need to be thought through properly at every stage. But faith is very important to people and one of the things that is clear at the moment is that the clergy are still in close contact with people," he said. "Of course that contact is not the same as it was with people coming into churches and clergy going to see them, but people are still ringing around and the clergy have a strong feel for how people are. There is no doubt there is quite a lot of frustration. Not just because of restrictions around attending church. In some very serious scenarios of course, there are even people in abusive situations, and all of it is very difficult."

In their statement, which followed a video conferencing meeting on Friday, the Church leaders told how the current restrictions were "challenging" but also "for the good and the protection of everyone across our island".

Archbishop McDowell added: "We recognise that on the one hand we're citizens that need to respond positively to what is being asked of us by governments and public health authorities.

"And at the same time as leaders of faith communities, we like to think of ourselves as people of hope. There are tens of thousands of people who look forward to going to church every Sunday, and some who go even more frequently than that.

"This is a very serious emergency we're in, and none of us can quite see our way through the fog. Whatever happens next is going to be slow and gradual, and the nature of the disease will dictate the nature of the reaction.

"But at some time when these decisions are being made we hope we will be treated on our merit as Churches and responsible people to do everything required in terms of social distancing or whatever other measures may be needed."

Belfast Telegraph