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COVID-19 task forces show bias against pastors violating lockdown directives – Isong, PFN spokesperson – Punch Newspapers


National Publicity Secretary of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Bishop Emmah Isong, discusses the recent controversial statements made by Pentecostal pastors and other issues with GBENRO ADEOYE

Some Pentecostal pastors have been caught having services despite the ban on gatherings and religious services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of those caught in Abuja recently was seen on video denying his church members; don’t you think it portrays church leaders as irresponsible?

One, the COVID-19 restrictions, curfews and so on differ from state to state. I’m in Cross River State and the laws here are different from the laws in Akwa Ibom State.

Two, before the lockdown and restriction orders, the pastors were not properly carried along. Of course there was some urgency when the pandemic came and the government forgot about consultation, which is a major aspect of administration. That made a lot of pastors to be ignorant of the operations. It is like waking up one day and saying everybody should stop drinking water. Then you start arresting people drinking water without doing enough consultations and giving out adequate information.

Three, there have been accusations of bias against the task forces, especially the Abuja Task Force. I saw a video where a pastor was arrested for holding a service. During another operation, the same COVID-19 task force in Abuja saw another religious gathering, which was not a Christian gathering, and they said to them, ‘Make una no do am again o, you hear; we are going to Garki now. (Don’t it again; did you hear that? We are going to Garki now).’ With the bias exhibited by task forces in different states and the Federal Capital Territory, most of the young pastors see it as a religious war. They don’t understand that COVID-19 is a dangerous virus and that their churches are not closed because of the Antichrist. If they had properly consulted them and given them information that they were helping them, the pastors would have said, ‘Thank you, I didn’t know.’ But when you go there as if you are fighting a religious war and start taking away their drums and keyboards, there would be suspicions. You know, they move there like thugs and there are no sufficient explanations.

Do you think that is an excuse as people who are not pastors know the dangers of gathering at this time and this information is broadcast on TV and radio every time?

Let me explain it better to you: you are treating these pastors like criminals and in the same environment, leaders of other religious organisations are moving freely and markets are open. I’m not saying people do not hear about it in the news but they doubt your explanation. If you give food to five of your children and add sugar to the meals of four of them but do not add sugar to the meal of the last one because he is diabetic, if you do not explain to that child that you did not give him sugar because of their diabetes, the child will react. Sensitisation, mobilisation and so on are important. I will give you an example: I’m the National Publicity Secretary of all the Pentecostal churches in Nigeria, but the COVID-19 teams at the federal and state levels have never called me or met with me to seek assistance to make things easy for them. Can you explain that?

Publish it and let somebody challenge me that he has contacted our national office or contacted me. How do you go into somebody’s house and begin to beat up his wife? He will react.

Then why is it that in states where religious gatherings have been banned, only Christian leaders have been found to be violators?

Are you daring me to send you videos showing gatherings of other religious worshippers? I can send you videos of other religious bodies meeting and they are being treated with kid gloves. I’m not supporting these pastors; I’m saying you are treating religious bodies differently. There is bias if you don’t treat religious leaders the same way. If pastors have been arrested several times for violating the lockdown directive and they are seen on the Internet, it does not mean that those who haven’t been arrested have not been meeting.

This is Ramadan period and I know that people are still going about their normal meetings. There is a video of an Imam saying that COVID-19 is not real and that it is an attempt by the US government to play down the spirit of Ramadan. And he spoke to a large gathering of followers. I’m not taking issues with anyone; I’m saying COVID-19 is real but the task forces, Federal Government and states governments have not used the right channel and said, ‘Please, PFN, help us pass this message to your people.’ It is not about taking whips and start flogging people. Do you know there is something called fundamental human rights? Even if I have broken the law, do you know you have violated my fundamental human rights by breaking into my church, taking away my equipment, beating up me and my members and take me away as the pastor? There are legal procedures to follow. You are giving churches a bad image and disgracing people on social media.

You cannot use the police to be hunting down pastors and putting handcuffs on them in public and disgracing them on videos when there are enough channels to interpret what COVID-19 is and mobilise religious leaders so they can sensitise their members to it.

I’m doing online services in my church and it is because I’m educated enough to know that it is killing people. In the US, I have seen many people killed. Many people have died in a church in New York where I have a lot of friends. But every day, you are parading pastors on the Internet and abusing the church of God. Are you aware that major church leaders are not holding services in their churches, except online? The Redeemed Christian Church of God and Living Faith Church Worldwide (Winners Chapel) are not holding services and the President of the PFN, Rev Dr Felix Omobude, is not holding services in his church.

Muslim leaders are also not doing holding services in mosques…

I’m not speaking for Muslims; I’m speaking for Christians. I’m not the public relations officer of an Islamic association.

A number of famous Pentecostal pastors have been making wild allegations and comments, including Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, who said 5G tech brought coronavirus and that the administration of its vaccine would be used to enthrone a new world order led by the Antichrist. What do you think about that?

Pastor Chris is an independent minister; he is not a member of the PFN.

What about Bishop David Oyedepo who questioned why churches should remain closed when markets are allowed to open while insinuating that there was a conspiracy against Christians…

We are back to what we were discussing. Look at Bishop Oyedepo’s statement, for instance. When an educated man like that who understands politics and the ministry makes a statement like that, if I were in government, I would call him and discuss with him and not just send media attackers against him. This man was speaking on behalf of millions of his members and other Christians who believe in him? Do you think he woke up, took alcohol and spoke? No!

But shouldn’t he know better as mosques and other religious houses were also closed?

I’m telling you about opinion influencers and fathers of faith like that. If a man like David Oyedepo coughs, people should catch a cold. He is not just a Nigerian leader; he is a spiritual leader and has the ability to hear from people and the Holy Spirit. We can consider his statement and say truly, markets and other places are open. Meanwhile, some streets in some states are busier than churches. I’m not promoting this; Bishop Oyedepo said churches are more organised than some of these market places and my question is: is it true or false? People should answer that.

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He insinuated that there was a conspiracy or a deliberate plan against churches when we all know mosques and other religious houses are also not operating. Is that not dangerous?

I said if you go to a church that is violating the lockdown directive, the simple thing to do is to seal it or take the pastor to a mobile court. You shouldn’t take their drums, beat up people and behave like there is a Jihadist attack on the church. That is what I’m telling you. The kind of behaviour that we have seen in different states can make people ask if the actions are anti-coronavirus or anti-Christ. It is not just about Oyedepo, everybody is thinking: what is going on? Anybody can give an explanation to anything until you make them understand what is going on.

But don’t you think more pastors are being found to be violating the directive because more Christian leaders are violating it than other religious leaders?

Do you have evidence that more churches are violating it than other religious bodies? One Million Boys (a group of hoodlums) are still meeting in Lagos, true or false? Ogboni fraternity and others are still meeting, true or false? If One Million Boys are meeting and attacking people, why can’t 100 people sit and maintain social distancing in churches? You can allow Christians and Muslims to meet and give them instructions. I hope you know that this virus will not go away; even the World Health Organisation has said it. So are you going to close churches and mosques forever? Is that what you are saying? What is to be done in 300 years’ time should be started now.

The right thing to do is to tell them to sanitise their hands, no hugging, no touching, possibly no laying hands on people, check the temperature of everyone that comes to church, and so on. You can give protocols of service. Have newspapers and TV and radio stations not been opening their offices and selling papers and transmitting? Give churches and mosques the same protocols media houses, markets and other places are using and only arrest people that violate the protocols.

Why is it difficult for church leaders to endure for a few weeks so that the government can put some measures in place to ensure the pandemic is contained?

I have told you about biases, the need for adequate information, how there has been no engagement with the proper channel and how they have been speaking to people in the language they understand and so on.

Why are you comparing markets and places that offer essential services to religious houses when you know they are not the same?

I can give you up to seven reasons why spiritual services are essential services. Nobody would troop to churches or mosques if they were not essential. Compare the number of people that go to churches and mosques to the number of people that go to supermarkets. Which one attracts more people? You cannot remove spiritual houses from the list of places that provide essential services.

People cannot survive if they can’t buy food from the market but since people stopped going to churches and mosques, have they died?

So when a pastor asks the same people to gather despite the lockdown directive, why is the place full? I’m waiting for your response before we go ahead. Why do they go if it is not essential? You cannot determine what is essential to people because what is essential to you may not be essential to me. Lawmakers and some organs of government have been meeting; lockdown directive should not only be meant for men of God. Some of these pastors you are talking about are professors, architects, and so on. I’m a trained banker and I graduated from a renowned Nigerian university. Are you aware that Oyedepo is an architect and Pastor Enoch Adeboye is a mathematician, so you are not talking to idiots? These are educated and intelligent people who contribute so much to the GDP.

Are you aware that continued closure of churches has disadvantages?  One, the release of spiritual tension has been taken away. Two, commercial motorcyclists and others take people to and from churches are not making the money they used to make. Those who sell food around churches have been affected. Do you know how much we spend on adverts in the media? We spend N3bn on TV adverts. Those pastors are paying. Closing churches is like shutting down the economy of Nigeria.

The Federal Government recently said it had asked churches and mosques to submit guidelines so it could consider reopening worship centre, what do you think about that?

Yes, the guidelines should include Basic Hygiene Protocol –washing of hands, using hand sanitisers, face masks, and so on. Also, they should maintain social distancing and hold short services. There should be no after church interactions, no laying of hands on the sick, and more electronic ways to giving offerings should be encouraged. Microphones should be disinfected after use and so on.

Why do you think about Pastor David Ibiyeomie saying he doubted that COVID-19 was Nigeria and likening it to malaria? Why are Pentecostal pastors misinforming the public?

Don’t you think something prompted Ibiyeomie to say that? Do you think he is a crazy man or that he drank alcohol? Don’t you think the story of Raymond Dokpesi (founder of DAAR Communications) made him to say that? He mentioned his name. Don’t you think the case of a Benue woman who has threatened to sue the COVID-19 team could have made Ibiyeomie to say that? Don’t you think the lady in Imo State who threatened the COVID-19 team could have led to that? What Ibiyemie was saying is that even if COVID-19 is real, there is political COVID-19. Do you doubt that?

Yes, there is medical COVID-19, which is real and killing people but there are also political COVID-19 and economic COVID-19. People are making billions of naira from palliatives. And for political COVID-19, any governor can wake up and claim they have COVID-19 and in two weeks, they are cured. No test, no isolation and after two weeks, they say they are free. Things happen that make people say what they say.

Don’t you think people whose voices carry so much weight should be careful about what they say when they don’t have any evidence to support their claims?

It is people like you who say they should be careful that will also say why can’t people be allowed to talk. They are killing people in this country and people are not talking. We have freedom of speech in the constitution; allow people to express their different opinions. The problem is that you talk but don’t want to allow me to talk. Are you aware of the controversy that no village in the Niger Delta has received a bag of rice or a bottle of water despite billions of naira approved for palliatives? Are you aware that in Bayelsa, people have been fighting for two weeks over the distribution of COVID-19 materials which had been sent to them because they said the palliatives provided by the state government were given to members of the Peoples Democratic Party and therefore the palliatives from the Federal Government should go to members of the All Progressives Congress?

People should be allowed to speak. When you stand around an elephant, I can say it is a rope if I touch its tail, while another person can say it is a wall if they touch the body. Why is it such a big deal to you that everybody must have a similar opinion about an issue? Even if the opinion is scientific, proven and generally accepted by the United Nations, the law of the land permits Mr X, Y and Z to also have their opinions. Allow people to have contrary opinions. We live in a world of free press and free speech. People should have contrary opinions ad feel free to express them, and not be attacked or victimised. Oyedepo and Oyakhilome should be allowed to speak their minds. You are a journalist, permit people to speak their minds. Let people speak for pros and cons. They may be pastors but they are also Nigerians and the constitution gives them the right to air their personal views. Nigerians, allow people to speak their minds.

What if they are misleading people with falsehood?

It is their right. When they call your view lies, you are angry, now you are calling theirs lies. Why should your opinion be true and my own be called lies?

Because there should be facts to support their statements instead of just saying 5G is responsible for COVID-19 or that the virus is not in Nigeria.

Defend free speech even if it is stupid. It is their right.

Are you aware that comments made by the pastors are making them look very desperate to resume services because of the money they are losing through offerings and tithes?

Are you saying these pastors live by tithes and offering? COVID-19 lockdown has lasted for about two months in some places, has any pastor died of hunger? Rather what we see are pastors distributing palliatives worth thousands and millions of naira to their members and non-members. In my church, we feed people every Saturday. We give out food, hand sanitisers, face masks and so on and we have done that for two months. It is the same pastors we think rely on tithes and offering that are giving out palliatives and not the government. Many communities have not seen one bag of rice from the government, but have received many things from pastors. You must find out why the pastors you hate so much are loved by their people so much.

Some pastors have succeeded in brainwashing and creating fear in the minds of people which some are doing now by linking COVID-19 to 5G to give their members reasons to run to them…

Why can’t the government create the fear if we are not more powerful than them? Who owns the media? Who owns the money and controls the police and the military? Who should create fear? Is it a bloody civilian without catapults? Why can’t the government brainwash people? You are abusing the Nigerian government by your statement and I don’t like it. You are saying the mighty Federal Government does not have the power to control the minds of people and that these poor pastors have the powers.

The Catholic Church has offered all its 425 hospitals in the country for use as isolation centres, what have Pentecostal churches done?

I have told you what Pentecostal churches are doing. Have you gone to the hospitals, are they in use? I am telling you that Pentecostal churches have donated things like equipment. Are you saying the government only needs hospitals and not equipment? I take exception to people only seeing Pentecostal churches as greedy and useless and yet, their congregations believe in them and love them. Their messages and teachings protect Nigerians from having mental problems amid the problems of this country. I’m not saying there is no black sheep among them.

Many people believe churches are taking more and more from the poor to become richer and richer despite the economic challenges in the country and poverty among citizens…

Where do you see them taking more and more from the poor? The principle of giving is to give willingly and within your capacity. Nobody has put gun to your head and compelled you to give.

Many people, including the Archbishop of Enugu Province, Anglican Communion, Most Rev Emmanuel Chukwuma, have said the pandemic has exposed many pastors who claim to prophesy and perform miracles. Do you agree?

I prophesied about coronavirus and it came to pass. Google it. Two, you are claiming that it has not been cured but that is not true. Many pastors have prayed and it has disappeared. If you say it has exposed churches, has it not exposed our lack of good health care system? Has it not exposed lack of solidarity in leadership? Has it not exposed lack of ingenuity in politicians? Why is it that it is things that have to do with pastors that are important to you? Has it not exposed some medical doctors or the failure by varsities to research despite huge sums of money given to research centres? Has it not proved that there is no hospital in Aso Villa and that there is no equipment in our hospitals? It has also exposed that there are fake journalists. Don’t we have fake journalists, policemen, soldiers and doctors and so on?

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