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Tanzania’s Rulenge-Ngara Bishop First to Suspend Public Mass over COVID-19

Bishop Severine Niwemugizi of the Catholic diogese of Rulenge-Ngara in Tanzania.

A Catholic Bishop in the East African nation of Tanzania has become the first religious leader to suspend the celebration of public Mass in his country where the President has encouraged public worship amid COVID-19 restrictions.

Bishop Severine Niwemugizi of Rulenge-Ngara diocese announced the decision in a letter dated Saturday, April 18 in which he described his decision as “difficult” but based on careful reflection.

“I order the suspension of public Mass and other celebrations that bring many believers to church, and community prayers from April 19 for one month,” Bishop Niwemugizi stated.

He explained that he came to the decision “after reflecting on the tough times and taking lessons from our colleagues in Europe, the United States and our neighboring countries and the steps taken by the Holy Father to give instructions to Catholic Bishops around the world on how to celebrate Mass during this war against the coronavirus.”

Tanzania has recorded at least 171 cases of COVID-19 and seven related deaths.

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President John Pombe Magufuli has encouraged faith-based meetings saying in reference to places of worship, “These Holy places are where God is. My fellow Tanzanians, let us not be afraid of going to praise Him.” 

Bishop Niwemugizi is counting on Radio Kwizera, the 25-year-old community-based that was established by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to broadcast Mass.

“Whenever possible we will ask Radio Kwizera to host a short Mass celebration and believers follow the radio,” the Tanzanian Prelate said.

The Prelate whose diocese borders Rwanda and Burundi clarified to Kwizera TV that his decision was also influenced by their geographical location.

“We are in an environment where there is a lot of interaction with outsiders,” Bishop Niwemugizi told a journalist in an interview posted on Kwizera TV YouTube channel, underscoring the vulnerability of people of God in his diocese.

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“Because we are in this environment, we have to take a step further,” the Local Ordinary of Rulenge-Ngara said and added, “What I said might cause tension in some people but  those who will reason it out will understand and see that it is better to take more precautions perhaps even more than in other places.”

He went on to express his appreciated for President Magufuli for trusting in God’s divine intervention because “we need the help of God as we all sincerely believe in the Almighty.”

The 63-year-old Tanzanian Prelate urged “the heads of the Councils of Laity in all parishes to put in place a plan to support your pastors and other dependent ministers at this time so that they do not starve.”

The Tanzanian Bishop appealed to the faithful “not to make fun of this disease” but rather “continue to take the precautions we are directed to, praying for each other fervently while staying at home.”

“Unless it is necessary to leave home, it is best to stay home and avoid opportunities to encounter this virus that is not discriminating against anyone who is particularly unfriendly,” Bishop Niwemugizi said.

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He concluded, “May the loving and merciful Lord protect and care for us and keep us from the danger that lies ahead because we trust in Him always.”