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Belfast pastor says he received threats after choosing to reopen church

by Will Maule

A pastor from one of the largest churches in Northern Ireland has said he faced threats after choosing to reopen his church building.

Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast welcomed congregants back to church on Sunday, as part of a "phased return".

Last week, the church announced that it felt comfortable with welcoming people to its 11am service after “taking into account the available data” on the virus.

In a statement posted to their website, Whitewell urged congregants to "abide by the safeguards", which include observing a "two metre gap both inside the building and in the carparks" and wearing a mask "from the time you leave your car until you return to your car".

The church added that "hand sanitising gel must be used upon entering the building" and that there "must be absolutely no hand-shaking or hugging".

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Senior Pastor David Purse said he had faced threats following the church's decision. 

"It was just a dirty stinking wee letter telling people that we were disgusting. You get that. It is not going to stop us doing what we do,” he told the outlet. “It is not nice when someone sends a letter like that. There is this scroll and you can’t even make half of it out - saying we were low, didn’t care and were a disgrace." 

Purse added that the police attended the church on Sunday to observe. 

"They advised they had received a complaint. So the police were invited in. I spoke to the police personally," he explained. 

“They told me it was just a complaint and they were obliged to look into it. The police officer complimented us on how well we are organised for those coming to church."

The PSNI confirmed that they had attended Whitewell's service and that "no breaches of the Regulations were noted".

Speaking on the BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show, former health minister Jim Wells said it was “entirely legal” for churches to reopen and function within the boundaries of the current restrictions. 

"The churches were never prevented from meeting as a result of the regulations,” he told BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show.

"They voluntarily stopped services, that was the four main churches. They said they would keep an eye on the statistics and the vaccine and make a decision later on - in this case ten weeks later." 

He added that there "was never much evidence to start with that church services caused much impact [on the spread of the virus]".

“A large proportion of the congregation are likely vaccinated in most cases, they have decided to go back. That is entirely legal.”

Last week, the four leading denominations in Northern Ireland - Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and Methodist - backed a provisional plan to have congregants back in their buildings by Good Friday. 

In a statement, the Church of Ireland bishops said they would be continuing to suspend in-person services until at least Thursday 1st April, and would be reviewing the situation immediately following the Stormont Executive’s review on Thursday 18th March.

The bishops said they had "agreed to further assess the situation immediately after the next Northern Ireland Executive review of current lock-down provisions on Thursday 18th March, in the cautious anticipation that, from Friday 2nd April (Good Friday) onwards, our parishioners in Northern Ireland could return to in–person gatherings for worship, with all necessary precautions and mitigations in place".

The added that this timeline "recognises the importance of Easter, the significance of which was acknowledged by the health minister and chief medical officer at their most recent meeting with church representatives".

Northern Ireland has been under lockdown restrictions since 26th December, with most churches agreeing to close from 7th January. 

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