Australian police on Monday expressed disappointment at the Sydney branch of Christ Embassy Church for flouting the city’s COVID-19 lockdown by holding a service for 60 people in a pandemic hotspot.
The church is part of Christ Embassy, an international religious group headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria, which has a record of spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
The branch, run by local couple Marvin and Isioma Osaghae, had during Sunday’s sermon, discussed the COVID crisis, praying that businesses would soon return to normal and streets would ‘come back alive.
“In the name of Jesus we refuse every lockdown in our cities. We declare the lockdowns are over in the name of Jesus. Lockdowns are over in the cities of New South Wales”, Pastor Osaghae said in widely distributed footage of a sermon he delivered on Sunday.
Fed-up, neighbours reported the service to New South Wales police on Sunday night, who arrived at the Blacktown church in Sydney’s west at 7.30pm and issued $35,000 worth of fines.
Blacktown is one of 12 Sydney local government areas under particularly strict lockdown due to the rapid spread of Covid-19.
Police allege there were also no mandatory QR codes at the church entrance.
Extra officers were called to the church to help break up the gathering and obtain attendees’ details. Early indications suggest many had travelled from other locked-down suburbs, including the Canterbury-Bankstown and Fairfield LGAs.
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NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, said the illegal gathering was ‘disappointing to say the least’, adding that officials are relying on community leaders to ensure compliance with government orders.
Fuller said: “We rely on our leaders, whether it’s a business leader or our premier or our church leaders, to do the right thing. This is just sending the wrong message in the communities.
“At the moment, we are struggling with COVID-19 in NSW, and these type of events are one of the reasons why. I mean, these people then go back to their homes and spread it to their broader family members and then we get the house-to-house transmission”, he said.
Meanwhile the Police Minister, David Elliott, questioned how and why anybody would be willing to ‘endanger their community’.
‘I’m actually quite stunned. When you consider that churches are there to profess the message of hope and love, and to have those people just endanger communities because they are potentially going to spread a virus is extraordinary.
“If cathedrals can stream online their services, I don’t understand why suburban churches in Blacktown can’t.”
Mr Elliott said he wouldn’t tolerate any excuses, particularly concerning cultural differences.
“I’m not going to cop that it’s cultural for them, it’s cultural for everyone. We all want to spend afternoons with our family and friends, but we’re making sacrifices”, he added.
Pastor Osaghae denied hosting the event but admitted he was there for “the party.” 8
Sunday night’s event was held just hours after the church posted an online sermon. The church also advertised its afternoon sermon on Instagram on Sunday, which people could attend ‘online or onsite.’
The church has already been inundated with online backlash. “Unbelievable! A law unto yourselves! Living in your own little entitled bubble. Shame on you for dragging your city further down in to lockdown”, one man posted on the church’s Facebook page.
“It is always disheartening and disappointing when you see people blatantly take it upon themselves to contradict what we know works, to contradict what we know is keeping people out of hospital.
“That is the key: to keep people out of hospital, to make sure that we keep people as safe and as healthy as possible. And we know the vaccine is having such a huge impact on that”, Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales state, told a news conference.
The whole of greater Sydney is currently under stay-at-home orders, as Australia’s largest city struggles to contain a Delta variant outbreak that now tops 800 new cases a day.
Blacktown is one of the 12 Sydney local government areas where tough new restrictions came into effect from midnight Monday in a desperate attempt to curb Sydney’s Covid-19 outbreak.
New restrictions include a one hour exercise limit and evening curfew between 9pm and 5am.
Residents are only allowed to leave home to shop for essential items, exercise, in health emergencies or for a handful of other reasons.
Service NSW-issued permits will be required for authorised workers travelling in and out of the 12 LGAs of concern for work from August 28.
It’s also one of the worst areas in terms of Covid-19 infections as NSW recorded 830 cases on Sunday, the highest number of daily new cases in Australia since pandemic began in early 2020.
More than 1,200 cases have been recorded in Blacktown in the last month, including almost 700 without a known source of infection..
The global Christ Embassy organisation is headed by Pastor Chris Oyakhilome. He is also president of Loveworld Inc, a religious broadcast and streaming network.
Britain’s broadcasting regulator Ofcom in April ruled that Loveworld Ltd., which it said was associated with Christ Embassy, had for a third time breached the country’s broadcasting code by making misleading and potentially harmful statements about the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines.