German bishops criticise decision to maintain church service ban

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A priest celebrates Holy Thursday Mass via livestream on 9 April at a nearly empty church in Bonn, Germany. The head of the German bishops’ conference voiced disappointment that the government decided on 15 April the ban on public church services should remain until further notice because of the COVID-19 pandemic. CNS photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA

Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany have responded differently to the federal government’s decision not to lift the ban on public church services.

The Catholic German bishops’ conference voiced disappointment at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement on 15 April, while the Protestant Church in Germany – a federation of the Lutheran, Reformed and United churches – stressed its support for the government’s measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, reported the German Catholic news agency KNA.

After talks with regional government leaders, Merkel said the ban on public church services should remain until further notice, while thousands of shops were being allowed to reopen.

She also announced that a state secretary of the interior ministry would talk with religious communities about the future of public services. Catholic and Protestant leaders were due to meet with government officials on 17 April, and religious representatives said they would propose ways to practice religion while safeguarding worshippers from infection, KNA reported.

Bishop criticises ‘inconsistent’ policy

Speaking in Bonn on 15 April, Bishop Georg Batzing, president of the German Catholic bishops’ conference, said he could not understand why the ban should remain in place while restrictions were being eased in other parts of public life, especially given a recent decision by the Federal Constitutional Court on the matter. The court had ruled that the ban constituted a serious encroachment on the fundamental right to religious freedom and should therefore be reviewed continuously.

Limburg Bishop Georg Batzing speaks during a March 3, 2020, news conference in Mainz after being elected as the new president of the German bishops’ conference. Bishop Batzing, regarded as an advocate of reforms in the Catholic Church, succeeds Cardinal Reinhard Marx, pictured at left. CNS photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA

Bishop Batzing added that Easter had shown that church services gave millions of people guidance and support in the difficult circumstances caused by the coronavirus crisis. He said the ban was a major impediment to the freedom of religious practice.

Catholic Church can maitain necessary hygiene standards

Separately, he told the newspaper Die Welt on 16 April that he could speak for the Catholic Church in stating that it would be able to stick to hygiene standards and social distancing rules in churches.

Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, president of the Protestant council, said he “expressly supports the continuing need for efforts by society as a whole to limit as far as possible the suffering caused by the spread of the coronavirus.”

A technician walks inside the empty Church of Our Lady in Dresden, Germany, March 23, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. CNS photo/Matthias Rietschel, Reuters

Merkel had “expressly acknowledged that the churches had found many ways of celebrating church services over the last Easter celebration without gathering in the churches and thus increasing the risk of infection,” said the Bavarian regional bishop. “We are grateful for this.”

He said he was confident that the discussions with the federal government “will very soon lead to a consensus that will make responsible forms of worship in our churches possible again.”

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