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World News

French church criticised for early Covid outbreak finally reopens

by Will Maule

A French church that was at the heart of one of Europe's first Covid-19 superspreader events has finally reopened its building. In February 2020, the Christian Open Door Church held a prayer conference in the eastern city of Mullhouse, with around 2,000 attendees.

Following the event, it became clear that the conference had served as a hotbed of Covid-19 infections, and it was largely blamed for the early outbreak across France and beyond. Officials at the time called it “a kind of atomic bomb", as the event was linked to around 2,500 cases in places as far-reaching as Burkina Faso in West Africa and Guyana in South America.

France's Health Minister, Olivier Veran, personally blamed the church for the country's first wave of the virus.

“The tipping point was the evangelical gathering in Mulhouse,” Veran was quoted as saying in late March. “The epidemic spread across the country from the gathering.”

Speaking after the church returned, Pastor Samuel Peterschmitt said: “Who, on February 21st, could have imagined what we were going to face?” as hundreds of masked attendees sat in the auditorium.

Speaking to the BBC after the church became the centre of criticism for its role in the virus spread, Peterschmitt said that people had begun issuing death threats against the congregation, with one saying that members "must be shot with Kalashnikovs' [and] 'we must burn the church".

"There have been relatively violent reactions, on social networks, many insults, threats," he added. "We have had people who have been assaulted at their workplaces, people who have had nasty text messages from their neighbours."

The pastor himself became very unwell following the gathering, saying he was overcome with "shivers and exhaustion".

A year later, Peterschmitt used the recent service to express regret that churches have been forced to close during the crisis - the French Government issued a blanket ban on church services during the two national lockdowns last year.

Following the lifting of the second lockdown in November, a 30 person attendee limited was set. This was challenged by several religious institutions as being "arbitrary and unreasonable" and a review was ordered after the country's highest court, the state council, ruled that the limit was disproportionate. 

While restrictions have now been eased even further, Peterschmitt believes that the damage to the community have already been done.  

"Today, people die because they no longer have a community,” the pastor said. 

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