Police in Gabon, Central Africa, attacked and arrested clergy in their efforts to shut down the Catholic Church’s plans to reopen churches.
On October 4, the Episcopal Conference of Gabon announced that churches would reopen on October 25, after being forced by the government to close for seven months during lockdown.
“On Sunday, October 25, 2020, on the feast of the dedication of the consecrated churches, we, your bishops, will celebrate the passion of the Lord as a great penitential act in each of our cathedrals with the rite of opening the door to implore God’s mercy on our nation,” the bishops’ statement read.
The government, however, published public worship regulations on October 16 which delayed reopenings to October 30 and which introduced tight restrictions on churches: only one service per week, no distribution of Communion, and a maximum of 30 worshippers, all of whom must provide a negative COVID-19 test result and register their attendance with the government.
Catholics protested the delay and argued that the new rules made it impossible for many to attend Mass, particularly poor people unable to obtain the COVID-19 tests. They also complained that shops, schools and other institutions were being permitted to operate without comparable restrictions.
The Gabonese government, however, doubled down on its plan and deployed police patrols across the country on October 24 to prevent any early reopenings.
Archbishop Jean Patrick Iba Ba of Libreville wrote in a letter to parishes that security forces were starting to surround local churches over the weekend and that they intended “to violate once again freedom of worship”.
The archbishop, however, still encouraged local churches to proceed with the October 25 reopenings but added that priests should, rather than celebrate Mass, “welcome the faithful in each parish, recite about ten Hail Marys, proclaim the Gospel … and dismiss the people by blessing them with the Blessed Sacrament.”
Soldiers soon surrounded Archbishop Iba Ba’s residence, barricaded nearby roads and churches, arrested two priests in the diocese and used teargas on parishioners filming the blockades.
Outside the cathedral where the archbishop celebrated Mass, a spokesman for the archdiocese said church reopenings would still go ahead, since shops, banks and other places were already open. “We will continue to open our churches while respecting the safety measures,” he insisted.
Meanwhile, Bishop Jean-Vincent Ondo Eyene of Oyem and his fellow clergy were reportedly attacked by soldiers as they concluded Eucharistic adoration at St Charles Lwanga Cathedral.
“The bishop was roughed up to force him to let go of the Blessed Sacrament and priests were beaten,” a parishioner told La Croix Africa.
Bishop Ondo Eyene had reportedly blessed the soldiers with the Blessed Sacrament at the end of the adoration.
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