As the country moves to lockdown Level 3, religious institutions nationwide are deliberating if they will follow the National Coronavirus Command Council’s (NCCC) decision that allows places of worship to resume services.

President Cyril Rampahosa consulted with various religious bodies, many of whom have been lobbying for congregational prayer services. They have been arguing that people are in need of spiritual counsel during the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ringing of church bells, the call to azaan and the trumpeting of the conch have been silenced for 67 days of lockdown as the gloom and despair of uncertain economic times and lives lost to coronavirus fills the silence.  For many South Africans, the comfort and security of prayer at a church, mosque, temple or synagogue has been a lost cry, not even fulfilled by home prayers.

Now provided with the opportunity to open the doors of places of worship, religious leaders are faced with a choice of caring for their congregants spiritually OR health-wise.

Pastor Aaron Moonsamy of the Trenance Park Family Centre at Phoenix says they will continue to take religion into cyberspace.

“Our church facilities, or our buildings, the doors have been shut but the church itself hasn’t closed down.  We have been using social media and we live stream all our services and we’ve encouraged our people and more so the families of our church to have their own services in their homes and which is not a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing. It has helped us as families to bond as families, to spend more time with families. It’s been amazing to see how families are developing, bonding. Social media has made it possible.”

Also making use of online platforms, Pundit J M Maharaj from the Shree Vishnu Temple Society says devotees need to register online to attend one of the three weekly sathsangs or sermons.

“We actually appreciate the president’s call to have spiritual organisations open for prayer.  Our shrine is a 400 seater and to accommodate 50 devotees is not an issue.  It’s a big shrine.  We have sathsang three days a week and everybody would have to register via whatsapp to come in and once we’ve got our numbers, we will stop and if the numbers overflow then we will have a rotational system.”

Some religious institutions have decided to stagger their usual prayer over a longer period of time. Annually, thousands of devotees gather at the Shri Mariammen Temple  for the Ammen prayer which pays homage to the divine Mother – who, it is believed, descended to help the people in a time when diseases such as measles and mumps plagued communities.

Chairperson of the Society, Seelan Archary, says, “One of the ideas we want to put on the table is to extend the prayer over the period of the ammen prayer. It takes a month from the day we raise the flag for Mother Marriammen to the day we dehost.  So, we will probably run the prayer over the month.  In other words, you may be able to carry your gargaum over several days as opposed to the Friday and the public prayer of Sunday. So, we will probably have three weekends of prayer including the weekdays.”

Larger religious facilities say huge congregations will pose a hazard as they cannot deal with the influx of worshippers expected to flock to places of worship.

The internationally popular Juma Musjid Mosque, also known as the Grey Street Mosque, will remain closed.

Trustee AV Mohammed says, “The Jumma Mashijd will remain closed as the number of 50 or 5000 will not matter. We are more concerned about the pandemic. The congregants have now been used to it, for two months without coming. GreyStreet mosque, as it is popularly know, attracts a crowd of 1 500 people per day and close to 3 500 on Friday, which is made up of 80% of foreigners. And it is going to be absolutely beyond human mechanism to calculate which 50 should come and which 50 should not come.  The logistic are too big.”

Whatever individual religious institutions decide, the message is clear, ‘prayer is important and should be done no matter what.’

Worshippers are asked to liaise directly with their religious organisations on the way forward during Lockdown Level 3.