•Oyo bows to pressure, relaxes regulations
•Redeemed Church, MFM, Winners’ Chapel, others adjust programmes
By Segun James in Lagos, Olawale Ajimotokan in Abuja and James Sowole in Akure
The Lagos State and Ogun State governments have rebuffed pressures from churches to relax restrictions introduced to curb the spread of COVID-19 infections so they could hold crossover vigils today to usher in the New Year.
The two states, with a high concentration of headquarters of churches in the country, insisted that the 12am-4am curfew introduced by the federal government, as part of measures to combat COVID-19 remains in place. They warned that dire consequences await individuals and groups that violate the regulations.
The Ondo State government, which on Tuesday had warned churches against holding any crossover service in the state today, also reiterated its warning while assuring the clergy that its decision was not to undermine Christianity, but to safeguard public health.
However, Oyo State has bowed to pressure from the church as the government yesterday relaxed the curfew to allow for the holding of crossover services.
Despite warnings by the federal and state governments on the danger of allowing events that could attract large crowds, as part of measures to tackle the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, some religious leaders have kicked against any attempt to stop the traditional crossover services to usher in the New Year.
Some of them have vowed to go ahead with their programmes notwithstanding the caution from the government.
However, in compliance with the government’s directives, some of the major churches in Ogun and Lagos States, such as The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries (MFM) and Living Faith Church Worldwide, aka Winners’ Chapel, have adjusted their programmes to conform to the directive.
Already, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has urged churches to comply with all government regulations to combat the spread of COVID-19 while conducting their crossover services.
CAN, against the backdrop of the controversy between churches and the association on the duration of crossover vigil, had on Tuesday directed its members to end their services by 11pm.
CAN President, Rev Samson Ayokunle, in a statement, had said the advice was necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection.
Amid the defiance of some churches to hold the crossover services today, the Lagos State Government yesterday urged residents to comply with all restrictions imposed by the authorities to curb the spread of the pandemic.
It said Lagosians who violated the 12a.m. to 4a.m. curfew imposed by the federal government and other protocols would face the wrath of the law.
The government urged all churches in the state to respect the curfew and avoid physical crossover services and large gatherings today.
The state Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr Gbenga Omotoso, said: “If you flout any of these rules, you can be fined. You will be taken to court and the magistrate will decide on the sanction.
“But it is not just about punishing people. People are being advised to take responsibility. The regulations were rolled out as an advisory and people have been obeying while people who have disobeyed have faced the consequences.”
Omotosho, in a statement, also said the government’s seeming hardline position on not allowing crossover vigils was informed by the rising cases of COVID-19, which is in its second wave and Lagos State still being an epicentre.
“The role of religious organisations in fighting the pandemic is well noted.
“The Christian Association of Nigeria has issued a statement on how churches should conduct their watchnight services.
“The Sanwo-Olu administration has maintained a harmonious relationship with religious organisations and has confidence in the ability of their leaders to ensure compliance with COVID-19 protocols amid the clamour for crossover services.
“With what we have been seeing, I don’t think churches will flout the protocols. CAN (Christian Association of Nigeria) is in agreement with the government. COVID-19 cases are going up and everybody is worried. Some of the giant churches have also announced that they won’t be holding physical crossover services.
“The Lagos State Government has also told them that there is a curfew by midnight to 4am imposed by the federal government. Many of the churches have been adjusting their programmes. Churches are well-organised and we believe they will comply,” he added.
The Director-General of the Lagos State Safety Commission, Lanre Mojola, also said the commission would be working with the police to enforce all restrictions, especially during the New Year .
According to him, the commission will not wait till the New Year’s eve to do its job.
Ogun Bans Crossover Services
The Ogun State government has banned crossover services to usher in the New Year in all worship centres across the state.
According to a statement by the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Mr. Kunle Somorin, the directives were issued after a meeting between the state government and religious leaders from the League of Imams and the CAN as well as community leaders as part of the measures and guidelines to safeguard public health as the state prepares for a second wave of the pandemic.
He quoted the governor as directing that all bars, nightclubs, pubs and event centres, recreational centres in the state be closed indefinitely.
The governor directed that all markets are to open strictly between 8a.m. and 4p.m. while maintaining social distancing and observing all COVID-19 protocols, including the use of face mask, provision of hand sanitisers, and/or hand-washing equipment at every strategic point within their malls, shops and business premises.
The Governor, Prince Dapo Abiodun, also mandated all worship centres not to exceed 50 per cent of their capacity.
“In order to stem the spread of the second wave of the disease, Governor Abiodun advised that “there should be no gatherings of more than 50 people at any event or ceremonies, such as conferences, congresses, office events, concerts, seminars, sporting activities, cross-over nights, end of year parties, weddings, naming, birthdays, anniversaries, street carnivals, etc until further notice”.
While urging citizens to celebrate in moderation, Abiodun said they should take personal responsibilities for their safety and stay within their residences and not embark on travels within and outside the state to ensure they neither transmit nor contract the virus.
“For religious centres, the League of Imams and the Christian leaders adopted the earlier positions taken in the wake of COVID-19 earlier in the year such as all worship activities must be observed by not more than 50 per cent of capacity.
“All congregants must wear their face masks appropriately (that is, No facemask, No entry)”
“There should be reliable sources of running water.
“Worship centres should be adequately cleaned and disinfected before and after services.
“There should be provision of alcohol-based sanitiser, which must be used before and at intervals of every 20 minutes as well as after service.
“Worship centres should provide adequate toilet facilities with water. It is paramount for Muslims to perform ablution at home and go to mosque with their personal praying mats.
“The use of airconditioners should be discouraged while worship centres should be well ventilated with the use of fans.
“There should not be any handshake/hugs by worshippers,” the governor said.
He added that government will not hesitate to impose severe sanctions, including, but not limited to lockdown, on any worship centre that fails to comply with the guidelines.
“No social gathering should exceed 200 people while two metres social distancing must be observed in such gatherings,” he added.
And in compliance with CAN directive, the state chapter of the association has directed all churches to close crossover service by 11 pm.
Ban on Crossover Vigil Not Anti-Christian, Says Ondo
The Ondo State Inter-ministerial Committee on COVID-19 has said the decision of the government to ban crossover vigil is not about religion or targeted at Christianity.
The committee said the decision was aimed at strengthening public safety and to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
The Chairman of the committee, Prof. Adesegun Fatusi, during an interactive meeting with religious leaders and stakeholders in Akure, the state capital yesterday, stated that the meeting was part of the committee’s strategies to strengthen the fight against COVID-19 and to better educate leaders on the need to play an exemplary role in the fight against the virus.
Fatusi, while commending some religious leaders and other stakeholders who have supported the government in its efforts at mitigating the spread of the disease, appealed to the church to remain an agent of change.
According to him, there is a need for every stakeholder, including church leaders, to key into the fight against COVID-19. He added that the government will continue to carry out advocacy and sensitisation programmes to re-educate the people about the pandemic and its dangers.
“We are talking about a matter of life and death. People have talked about maintaining protocols in the markets and other places, but focus on churches and mosques is because by their designs, they spread COVID-19 more than open places.
“It is an enclosed place and people are more active therein. The likelihood of higher infection is very prominent. The decision to cancel crossover vigil is not about churches, you will recall that the government cancelled Muslims gathering too, it is about subsisting order for prevention of outbreak of infection and reducing further spread of COVID-19,” he said.
He explained that the government is not biased against any religion but concerned about the safety of its citizens.
He urged the religious leaders to cooperate with the government.
Responding, the Ondo State Chairman of CAN, Rev. Ayo Oladapo, called on the government to permit churches to celebrate the crossover vigil, stressing that churches have been educating the people on preventive measures against the pandemic.
He said CAN as a law-abiding organisation would not work against the directive of the government.
He also requested for a stronger working relationship between the church and the government.
Fatusi, who admonished the leaders to obey the government’s directive banning the vigil, promised to convey their appeal for lifting the ban to the governor for further directive.
Oyo Relaxes Regulations for Crossover Vigils
The Oyo State Governor, Seyi Makinde, has approved the conduct of the crossover service by churches in the state.
Makinde, in a statement yesterday by his Chief Press Secretary, Taiwo Adisa, however, warned worship centres to hold their services in strict compliance with COVID-19 protocols.
“The Oyo State Governor, Seyi Makinde, has approved the suspension of the 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. curfew earlier imposed on states by the federal government, saying that officials of the state’s Task Force on COVID-19 will ensure strict compliance with the guidelines and advisories during the Yuletide and after.
“The governor has, therefore, directed that religious centres be allowed to hold crossover worship services only in strict compliance with COVID-19 protocols,” Adisa said.
Makinde gave the directives in a brief endorsed by the chairman of the Technical Team of the COVID-19 Task Force, Professor Temitope Alonge, which reviewed the earlier pronouncement of the technical team and lifted the curfew.
However, other advisories earlier released by the task force, including the directive of 50 per cent occupancy for worship and event centres, ban of street carnivals and others, remain in effect, the statement added.
FCTA Warns Churches over Crossover Vigils
The Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) has urged churches in the territory to observe COVID-19 protocols as they prepare for the crossover service or have their worship centres shut down.
The Chairman, Public Enlightenment of FCT COVID-19 Task Force, Ikaro Attah, yesterday urged church leaders to obey the directives of government and security personnel to avert the spread of the virus.
According to him, the combined team of the task force will monitor compliance during the crossover .
Worshippers are enjoined to put on their face masks, have handwash points and keep physical distancing, while churches should not be overcrowded.
Alternatively, worshippers are advised to join the programme through online platforms.
“We have taken orders from the FCT Minister, Malam Muhammad Musa Bello and the FCT Commissioner of Police, Bala Ciroma, to enforce compliance and we are working closely with the FCT Chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) Chairman, Rev. Samson Jonah, and the CAN North Central Chairmen, Rev. Israel Akanji.
“In all that we do, we are also working with the Leagues of Imams and Ulamas and we have told all religious bodies, which I believe they have also communicated, that all centres of worship that will be engaging in crossover night services must be COVID-19 protocol compliant,” Attah said.
He warned that those that jeopardise the lives of others and contravene the protocols will be arraigned before the mobile court.
The FCT task force similarly appealed to all religious centres not to stay longer than necessary at service but keep to about two hours for safety of the congregation.
Churches Adjust Crossover Programmes
Following the directive by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) that churches should comply with all government regulations to combat the spread of COVID-19 while conducting their crossover services, some churches with large followership have adjusted their programmes.
The churches included The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries (MFM), Living Faith Church Worldwide aka Winners’ Chapel and Deeper Christian Life Ministry.
For instance, the General Overseer of RCCG, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, has said the church’s crossover service will start by 6p.m.
In a Facebook post on his verified page, he said: “God has been so good to us. He has kept us despite the many hurdles of this year. It is time to crossover gallantly into 2021. Be a part of the crossover service and be empowered for the year 2021.”
The post was accompanied by a flyer, which has 6p.m as the commencement time, while members were encouraged to link up with the service online.
A memo signed by RCCG Assistant General Overseer (Admin and Personnel), J. F. Odesola, said the church decided on a virtual crossover vigil to ensure that none of its members violates the curfew imposed by the federal government.
It also said the January Holy Ghost service will be held virtually.
“Kindly be informed that in compliance with the federal government and various states government directives, the crossover service shall be virtual and the crossover message from Daddy G.O shall be relayed through all our social media platforms as usual.
“You are to also note that the January Holy Ghost service scheduled to take place on Friday 8th January 2021 shall also be held virtually,” it said.
Also, the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries (MFM), led by Dr Daniel Olukoya, said the church’s crossover service would hold between 9pm and 11pm while it would continue virtually into the New Year.
In a memo dated December 29, 2020, and signed by the church’s Assistant General Overseer in charge of Administration, Pastor Gbesan Adebambo, the church said: “The leadership of this ministry has directed that, in view of the government safety and health regulations, coupled with the imposed curfew between 12am and 4am, the crossover night service on the 31st of December, 2020, would now hold from 9pm to 11pm on Thursday.”
The Winners’ Chapel, pastored by Bishop David Oyedepo, also fixed the church’s crossover service for between 6p.m. and 8p.m.
A member of the church who craved anonymity, said: “My pastor announced it on Sunday and he said it was the instruction from CanaanLand.”
Also, the Covenant Christian Centre, based in Lagos, said its crossover service would hold between 7p.m and 9p.m.
Its Senior Pastor, Poju Oyemade, in a broadcast on Tuesday, said a second service would hold virtually and would be televised between 11pm to 1am.
The Deeper Christian Life Ministry, led by Pastor William Kumuyi, also fixed its crossover service to begin at 10p.m.
“We are having it based on district and location basis. We are not going to have large gatherings like the previous years. We are starting by 10pm,” said an official of the church who said he was not permitted to speak on the matter.
On its part, Daystar Christian Centre, under the leadership of Pastor Sam Adeyemi, announced that its crossover service would hold strictly online between 7p.m. and 9p.m.