NAIROBI/FREETOWN/LAGOS (Reuters) - Hand sanitiser replaced holy water at Nairobi’s Holy Family Basilica Catholic Church, and attendance was far lower than usual, but Sunday Mass went ahead.
“God’s intention is that we worship him in the church,” preached Father David Kamumue to about 300 people, instead of his usual congregation of some 5,000.
“Let us pray. May God keep us safe.”
In Kenya, where there have been seven confirmed cases of coronavirus, the government has imposed restrictions including closing schools and has urged people to practice social distancing as it tries to prevent the disease from spreading.
Later on Sunday, Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe announced at a news conference that all religious gatherings were banned indefinitely. That tightened up a previous request by authorities for churches to limit crowds as much as possible.
Globally, measures by authorities have included closing or limiting worship, disrupting Sunday services just before Easter.
So far the confirmed incidence of the disease in Africa has been relatively small - almost 1,200 cases and more than 30 deaths, compared with a worldwide total that has reached more than 305,000 cases, with more than 13,000 deaths.
But part of Africa’s battle to stop the virus from taking hold could be fought in its churches. It has the highest number of Christians of any continent, 631 million people as of 2018, or 45% of the continent’s population, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.
As worshippers trickled into services across the continent on Sunday morning, temperatures were taken, hands were sanitised and people sat apart.
In some places, measures were more extreme.
In Sierra Leone, which has included religious services in a list of banned gatherings, churches in the capital Freetown stood empty on Sunday. Some parishes found ways to broadcast their services so people could worship from home.
Behind the locked doors of Sacred Heart Cathedral in downtown Freetown, the country’s oldest Catholic church, a priest and his deputy delivered a sermon to an empty room.
A camera broadcast the sermon live over Facebook, while a microphone relayed the audio to Radio Maria — a church sponsored station broadcasting across the city.
“People need to hear the word of God now more than ever,” said Father John Peter Bebeley who manages the radio station. “If we can play our part in keeping this virus at bay while also providing consolation to people in these trying times, we have every responsibility to do that.”
Similar scenes have played out across the continent.
Churches in Ghana, South Africa, Liberia and other countries are moving to radio, television and the internet.
“If I go out there and I am infected, I won’t have the opportunity to worship God next,” said Chika Paul-Oboh, a finance manager in Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos.
“If I can stay alive to worship God, any medium is fine.”
Some worshippers disagreed with that stance.
“Nothing can stop me from not being in church,” said Anna Ohere, a salon manager, who attends and works at another church in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.
“I must be in church to serve my God, I can’t be at home because of any one disease.”
On Sunday, thousands of people in Abuja flocked to the 100,000-capacity Dunamis Glory Dome, a squat, sprawling monolith.
The service, which was live-streamed on YouTube, was in open defiance of a government ban on gatherings of 50 people or more.
People stood side by side for hours, singing hymns and listening to the pastor, Paul Enenche, sermonise on the dangers of plagues. He acknowledged the ban on gatherings and the effects of coronavirus on Christianity everywhere.
“In most parts of the world churches are closed completely, but that devil is a liar,” Enenche said. “Church is our only hope. God is our only hope.”
However, the church will move towards home services for small groups and online worship, he said.
He also announced a possible solution to skirt the ban on large gatherings: erecting canopies that would each hold 50 people.
Reporting by Thomas Mukoya in Nairobi, Cooper Inveen in Freetown, Christian Akorlie in Accra, Lucinda Rouse in Monrovia, Abraham Achirga in Abuja, Seun Sanni in Lagos and Tanisha Heiberg in Johannesburg; Additional reporting by George Obulutsa in Nairobi; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Frances Kerry