Churches in Northern Ireland are to come under increased restrictions as lockdown measures tighten in response to a spike in Covid-19 infections.
Under the latest restrictions, which were approved by the Northern Ireland Executive on Thursday, churches will only be allowed to open for weddings and funerals, with up to 25 people in attendance at any one time from next Friday.
Brian Madden is the lead pastor of Elim church in Maghaberry, he told Premier he feels churches are being unfairly punished:
"We have no indication that churches have spread Covid anywhere, none at all. I've asked the government to provide me with the information that the churches are responsible and they've all fallen on deaf ears, not one of them have returned the call to give me the information, which is not surprisingly, because I don't think they have the information."
We are being really supressed here. It is absolutely ludicrous to say the least that wine stores will be able to be open until about 8 o'clock in the evening, so alcohol is essential but the church isn't? It doesn't make sense."
The measures that come into force next Friday will be similar to those in imposed back in March, with the exception of schools remaining open. As such, all non-essential retail outlets will be close, along with close contact services leisure facilities.
The measures mark a significant change from October's "circuit breaker lockdown," during which churches in Northern Ireland were allowed to remain open. Those measures included a mandatory requirement for worshippers to use face coverings when entering and exiting their church buildings.
Peter Lynas, the Northern Ireland-based UK director of the Evangelical Alliance, said that there was "huge surprise and disappointment" amongst churches in response to the new restrictions. "We are seeking further clarification today about essential services churches provide and live-streaming from the building," Lynas said.
While the EA was disappointed with the decision, it also clarified that churches in Northern Ireland are not being persecuted.
"We also need to be clear at this moment that churches are not being singled out, this is not religious persecution," they said. "As church buildings close for a few weeks, the church continues to serve God, the least & the lost through everyday worship & witness as friends & neighbours."
The EA added: "In our experience, churches have taken the regulations incredibly seriously and in most instances gone above and beyond in their efforts to minimise risk & help reduce community transmission.
"We will keep advocating for the role of churches, the importance of (and swift return to) corporate worship, the ability to continue to serve the vulnerable practically and spiritually and for fair, wise and measured regulations.
"Finally, join us as we continue to pray for wisdom and good grace for all those making such difficult decisions about the risk to lives and health, jobs and livelihoods, seeing family, religious worship and things we all care so deeply about."