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Africa's clerics send mixed messages to followers

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
April 10, 2020

In some African countries, religious leaders have asked their congregations to respect governments' stay-at-home advice; others are defying it. With Easter coming in a few days, followers are confused and this is risky.

Gebet für Mandela
Image: Reuters

As new cases of the novel coronavirus are registered in different parts of Africa, many people have turned to religion for solace and divine intervention. The continent has some of the most prayerful people in the world, with churches and mosques separated by not even a mile. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic what have the so-called 'men of God' been telling their flock?

Nigeria - 276 recorded COVID-19 cases

Nigeria is home to most of Africa's mega-churches – you can call it the Vatican for Africa's televangelists if you like. A federal government lockdown imposed on three states – Abuja, Ogun, and Lagos – to curb the flow of COVID-19 forced most of these churches to shut their doors to the public. That meant a halt to much-needed revenue to finance their pastoral activities. DW takes a look at what clerics have been telling their congregants.

Easter celebrations have been limited to small groups of persons, and the traditional Good Friday procession canceled in many parts of the country. Some churches and mosques have had to stop in-person gatherings, shifting congregations from auditoriums to social media platforms, such as the now popular chatroom Zoom.

"Muslims and Christians must obey what the constituted authorities say," says Yohanna Buru of the Christ Evangelical and Life Intervention Fellowship church. The pastor is one of the many Christian and Islamic leaders asked by the government to educate the public about strict adherence to the measures put in place to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

"God made us know that there are pandemics, and there are ways to take care of them. If they are not going to obey that of the government, then they should obey that of the Quran," Pastor Buru tells DW.

However, not all religious preachers had been so keen to preach the government's message. The self-ordained divine preacher TB Josua, known across the African continent, had been sending mixed messages and claimed that the coronavirus outbreak would be over by March 27. But when that date past, he said he meant the virus "would be halted, where it began:" Wuhan – China.

Another preacher Kingsley Innocent, who goes by the name Talknado, denied on March 15 in a YouTube video seen by dozens that there was no recorded coronavirus case in the country.

"Say Talknado said so. It's not in Nigeria," he says. "That thing cannot survive in Nigeria. What do you mean by coronavirus when there are corrosive anointing. I don't know about other places, and there is no coronavirus here. Coronavirus does not exist in Nigeria."   

Read also: Religious celebrations in the time of coronavirus

Uganda – 53 recorded COVID-19 cases

Ugandan authorities detained Pastor Augustine Yiga on March 31 for allegedly denying any coronavirus cases in the Africa continent, local media reported. Uganda state prosecutors issued charges against the preacher the following day.

"Claiming that COVID-19 doesn't exist in Africa and Uganda undermines government efforts in fighting the pandemic and exposes the public to the great danger of laxity in observing the guidelines on its control and prevention," says Uganda police spokesman Patrick Onyango in a press statement.

South Africa – 1,845 recorded COVID-19 cases

In South Africa, 67 people, including popular evangelist Angus Buchan, who attended prayers at the Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast in Bloemfontein, tested positive for the virus. The gathering took place in March before a 21-day nationwide lockdown was imposed.

South Africa has the most confirmed cases on the continent, but the unprecedented measures being taken against the spread of the virus are seen as among the strictest in the world.

Read also: How evangelicals in Brazil are spinning COVID-19

Tanzania – 25 recorded COVID-19 cases

In Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, DW's Africa's Tulanana Bohela says no government-sanctioned measures have been put in place to stop the Easter celebrations. Still, religious institutions are making efforts to contain the spread. "I was at the Sinza Catholic Church in Dar es Salaam and saw two large buckets with large signs that read 'Please use the water, that has sanitizer in it," Bohela reported. He says health minister Ummy Mwalimu spoke in the church saying: "My religious leaders, let me be frank, the week starting from Monday, the next two weeks are going to give us a full picture of the scale of the pandemic of COVID 19 in the country. It will tell us whether we can rest or not."

Kenya – 179 recorded COVID-19 cases

In Kenya, a group of pastors from the eastern Makueni appealed for churches to be added to the government's list of "essential services" allowed to operate during the lockdown. They say faith is the "best way to fight the unseen enemy," asking for Sunday services to be permitted.

Egypt – 1,560 recorded COVID-19 cases

Egypt plans to ban any public religious gatherings during the holy month of Ramadan, which starts in around two weeks, a government statement said on Tuesday. During Ramadan, Muslims usually break the fast at sunset together with their families, go to the mosque to pray and spend maximum time with relatives.

*All figures are as of Thursday, April 9, 2020. Source: Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center

DW correspondent Tulanana Bohela on life under the threat of COVID-19

Muhammad Al-Amin in Nigeria in northern Nigeria and Tulanana Bohela in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania contributed to this report.