A top Catholic bishop in Northern Ireland is seeking "urgent clarification" on whether churches are allowed to remain open for private prayer after the government announced it would be shuttering places of worship as part of the country's latest lockdown measures.
Archbishop Eamon Martin, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, said that the news that churches across Northern Ireland are to close for two weeks from 27 November came "as a great disappointment".
Archbishop Martin took issue with the fact that off-licenses may remain open across Northern Ireland, while churches have been ordered to close.
"I cannot understand how a person may still go to an off-licence to buy alcohol but might not be permitted to visit and sit in quiet solitary prayer in a large church," he said. "The right to do this is particularly important for Catholics."
The senior leader also noted that the decision taken by the Northern Ireland Executive was "contrary to the assurances given to faith groups at a meeting just last week at which we were praised for our attention to safety and public health".
He continued: "Our parishes have consistently tried to support the Executive and public health authorities and we will do so again, but we would prefer to do so in mature partnership and dialogue.
"The Catholic Church always wishes to protect health and life and promote the Common Good and therefore will continue to play its part in making the necessary sacrifices, but we urgently request that the ban on public worship will be for the shortest period possible.
"I seek urgent clarification on the question of whether churches may open for individual visits and private prayer. This issue was the subject of debate during the first lockdown and we were confident that it was understood that Churches are places of sanctuary, calm, and spiritual strength during this crisis.
"The restrictions will coincide with the beginning of the holy season of Advent, a sacred time of preparation for Christmas. In speaking about “saving Christmas”, I urge the Executive to accept that for many people a “meaningful Christmas” is about more than shopping, eating and drinking. Spiritual preparation is essential."
Meanwhile, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, insisted that the "church is not closed".
“For the time being, while public worship may be suspended for these two weeks, the church is not closed. We will worship together using online and other media," he said. "We will pray for our people, our governments and our communities during these uncertain times. Our presence as salt and light in our communities will continue as we share the love of Christ and care for those around us."