A pastor of the evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God prays with the faithful in Guaruja, Brazil © Reuters

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Kneeling before a giant, shiny reconstruction of the Ark of the Covenant, the congregant placed his bare palms on the wooden altar, kissed the smooth surface and then pressed his hands to his face, asking the Lord for protection from coronavirus.

Over the next 15 minutes, more than a dozen other faithful performed a similar routine of devotion, flattening their cheeks against ornaments inside the Temple of Solomon in São Paulo.

The church, which can seat about 10,000 people, is the glitzy headquarters of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of Brazil's biggest and most influential evangelical congregations, where despite social distancing restrictions and the high risk of spreading Covid-19 cases, worshippers are still coming to pray.

“People keep coming in to pray in these hard times. If they believe, they will be saved,” said Caio Miranda, one of the church’s handlers, holding a payment terminal for members of the congregation to make donations. Even during a pandemic, believers must continue to tithe one-tenth of their income to the church.

Across the world, similar scenes have played out in different countries, where despite restrictions and nationwide lockdowns some religious communities have continued to come together. In France and South Korea a string of coronavirus cases have been linked to gatherings of Christian groups.

Now as the pandemic moves to emerging economies in Africa and Latin America where evangelicalism has been on the rise, health officials fear that powerful religious communities will help the virus to spread by continuing to meet.

In Brazil, most state governors and many city mayors tried to ban religious assemblies only to be overruled by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has exempted churches from coronavirus lockdowns as an essential service.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil prays at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasília © AFP via Getty Images

hard-right populist who was brought up a Catholic but re-baptised as an evangelical in the river Jordan in Israel, Mr Bolsonaro has long courted political support from Brazil’s growing evangelical churches and some analysts say he is now bending to pressure to keep them open.

“He is subjecting public health policies to political ties with some evangelical churches with great damage to the health of Brazilians,” said Eliane Morais Falcão, a scholar of religion and health at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Recent surveys suggest that about a third of Brazil’s 211m people are evangelical Christians.

The courts have intervened and are trying to shut churches such as the Temple of Solomon after confirmed coronavirus cases in Latin America’s largest economy more than quadrupled in less than a week to almost 8,000. But Mr Bolsonaro, who has played down the risk of the virus, calling it a “sniffle”, insists the churches are many people’s “last shelter”.

In Iran and Saudi Arabia, Muslim leaders have taken a different approach, ordering the closure of holy sites and cancelling Friday prayers, in stark contrast to some political and religious figures in Brazil and parts of Africa.

Charts showing numbers of cases of Coronavirus in Brazil Mexico and South America

“For the sake of our faith and for us as a government, we did not close the churches and mosques,” John Magufuli, Tanzania’s president, who identifies as a devout Catholic, said last month. “Corona is the devil that cannot survive in the body of Jesus,” he added, shrugging off Pope Francis’s wishes that churches hold Easter mass without bringing their congregations together.

Edir Macedo, the billionaire founder of Brazil’s Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, who is a staunch Bolsonaro supporter from the pulpit, has already called the coronavirus a “tactic of Satan” aimed at spreading fear.

Marco Feliciano, a Brazilian neo-Pentecostal pastor and congressman also close to Mr Bolsonaro, told the Financial Times that “churches should be open” as they were during “the worst wars and plagues”.

Similar scenes have played out in South Africa, where health authorities are scrambling to trace hundreds of people who may have been infected at an evangelical service called the Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast in the city of Bloemfontein.

Pamphlets on coronavirus are handed out at the Apostolic Christian Church in Kagiso, west of Johannesburg, South Africa  © Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Since the meeting, 67 attenders have tested positive for the virus, including Angus Buchan, a well-known South African evangelist, and Kenneth Meshoe, leader of the African Christian Democratic party, a rightwing movement with seats in South Africa’s parliament.

The gathering took place before South Africa ordered a national lockdown last week. Still, Zweli Mkhize, South Africa’s health minister, highlighted the prayer breakfast to underline the risks of infection at religious meetings. “Church leaders who attended the meeting, put their congregation in contact with the virus,” Mr Mkhize said.

In Nigeria, the founder of Winners Chapel, one of the biggest of the country’s many megachurches and capable of holding up to 250,000 people, defied government advice by running services on its sprawling campus outside Lagos before a lockdown was ordered on the city on Monday.

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“Shutting down churches would be like shutting down hospitals,” David Oyedepo, dressed in a pressed, white suit, told a crowd of hundreds from the pulpit in a livestream of one sermon last month. Nigeria’s 200m citizens are among the most religiously observant people in the world, surveys show, and the mainly Christian south is home to several Pentecostal megachurches.

That makes religious institutions vital if countries like Nigeria are to slow the spread of the virus, explained Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development.

“Religious institutions remain the key to combating the scourge, as they are the most trusted sources and platform in the country today,” she said, warning that many have so far framed the pandemic as a hoax. “Depending on how effectively they utilise their platform, social distancing can be achieved.”

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