With Thomas Vandi Gbow
President Brig. (Rtd) Dr. Julius Maada Bio on Tuesday 23rd June, 2020 announced the lifting of the inter-district lockdown and also adjusted the curfew from 11:00p.m. to 6:00a.m. The adjustment to the curfew was announced with immediate effect whilst the lifting of the inter-district lockdown came into effect yesterday, Wednesday. While the lifting and easing of the aforesaid restrictions were highly appreciated by many people, most Sierra Leoneans were disappointed that the President did not lift the ban on congregational worship in Churches and Mosques, despite the clustering of groups of people in public places in urban settlements, such as markets, commercial vehicles, ghettoes, lorry parks, fast-food joints, among others.
Prior to the nationwide presidential address on Tuesday, the President had engaged the Sierra Leone Inter-Religious Council to make suggestions for the lifting of ban on Churches and Mosques so that congregational worship would recommence. One would have thought that the President could prioritize the lifting of ban on Churches and Mosques, but he never made such consideration in his nationwide address as though his meeting with the Inter-Religious Council was well and truly inconclusive. But whatever was the outcome of the meeting between the President and the Inter-Religious Council, most Sierra Leoneans are disappointed that the President, who many have described as a devout Catholic, did not consider lifting ban on congregational worship in Churches and Mosques throughout a country that is Muslim dominated.
In as much as the people would appreciate the lifting of the inter-district lockdown and the adjustment to the curfew from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00a.m., they really could not fathom why the President just decided not to lift the ban on Churches and Mosques so that people would be going there and praying to the Almighty Father to help our country overcome the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic destroying lives globally. Why should the President continue maintaining the ban on Churches and Mosques when Saudi Arabia and many Islamic countries around the world have lifted ban on congregational worship despite the COVID-19 is still with them?
If social distancing as one of the health protocols for the prevention of Coronavirus is less effective as a result of our orientation to tradition and culture, I see no tangible reason why the President should not lift the ban on Churches and Mosques whose religious authorities are capable enough tom make some adjustment to the number of people who would congregate at a given time. Even at normal times, for instance, the Roman Catholics attend different services on Sunday to ensure that congregational members of various walks of life do not miss attending one of those services. If a Church could decide to conduct three or more services on Sunday, it would help avoid overcrowding even if the fellowship is large. I believe the Muslims will also devise a means of avoiding overcrowding during congregational prayers if the ban on Mosques is lifted.
By and large, if countries in the sub-region experiencing the COVCID-19 pandemic have lifted ban on congregational worship in Churches and Mosques, I believe President Maada Bio should move out of the box and rethink of emulating what his counterparts in the sub-region have done. If people are clustered in market places, in the ghettoes, commercial vehicles, pubs and ferries, it makes no sense to continue banning Churches, Mosques and other places of worship.
Besides, we Sierra Leoneans need to pray fervently to combat the novel pandemic in the country and around the world. We can do it at home, though, but the best places dedicated for prayers for both Christians and Muslims are the Church and Mosque. Since the banning of congregational worship, people have been praying assiduously at home but they would never be satisfied until the traditional places of worship are opened to the public again. The Imam has missed his congregational members as much as the Pastor has missed the fellowship of his church members because of the COVID-19 pandemic which effects are economically, socially and religiously devastating.
It is true that COVID-19 is real, but its rate of infection is by far lesser than the dreaded Ebola. That is why the recovery rate is high and the death rate low. It is against this backdrop that President Bio should consider lifting ban on Churches and Mosques so that Sierra Leoneans and other Muslim nationals residing in the country will again participate in congregational prayers. For them, the most effective but cheapest way to fight the pandemic is through prayers and they would be more comfortable offering such prayers during congregational worship than in privacy. Even in discussion, the devout Muslim or Christian will tell you how they have missed the inspirational sermons of their reverent Imams and Pastors.
What makes the continuous banning of congregational worship in Sierra Leone more controversial than before is the reopening of schools in July for pupils attempting this year’s public examinations. And one of the major challenges of our public schools is overcrowding and classes will definitely be overcrowded when schools reopen, unless the other pupils who will be attempting promotional exams have to wait until the completion of the public examinations. Mindful of overcrowding in school, the Ministry of Basic and Secondary School Education (MBSSE) has in collaboration with other stakeholders put modalities in place with regards containment measures ahead of the reopening of schools.
In the same vein, it stands to reason that President Bio lifts ban on congregational worship in the Churches and Mosques on condition that the Inter-Religious Council proffers advice regarding containment measures for worshippers. As a responsible religious Council, its members should hang heads and come out with an advice that could persuade the President to lift the ban so that worshippers will again start going to the Mosque and Church and praying for the country to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.