Priests arrested for public Mass celebrations during coronavirus shutdowns

deogratias kiibi Fr. Deogratius Kiibi Kateregga. Public domain.

Amid lockdowns responding to the coronavirus pandemic, at least three priests were arrested Sunday for celebrating Mass publicly, in alleged defiance of government orders banning religious gatherings during the pandemic.

In Uganda, Fr. Deogratius Kiibi Kateregga was arrested March 29 for celebrating Mass at St Joseph's Catholic Parish in Mpigi, Uganda. There were reportedly at least 15 Catholics in attendance at the Mass.

The priest is well-known in Uganda, and came to national notoriety after a televised 2018 sermon at the memorial Mass for a Ugandan musician, Mowzey Radio, who died from injuries sustained in a bar fight.

Local officials said the priest was arrested along with seven other Catholics and was detained at the Mpigi police station.

"He was found preaching in the church in contravention of the presidential directives," said Herbert Nuwagaba, the Mpigi District Police Commander.

"We want him to tell us why he is doing this," Godfrey Matovu, the Mpigi District Internal Security Officer, told the Daily Monitor.

The priest was released after parishioners protested on his behalf at the police station, according to local media reports.

On March 18, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni suspended religious and cultural gatherings for at least 32 days in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19. Uganda currently has 30 cases of the coronavirus.

In India's Kerala state, two priests, two seminarians, and three religious sisters were charged with violating government orders after a Mass celebrated in a chapel at the minor seminary of the Congregation of Missionaries of Faith in the Wayanad district of Kerala.

All seven were released after their arrest, according to UCA News, with a warning not to repeat their actions.

Father Manoj Kakkonal, a spokesman for the Mananthavady diocese, told UCA News that the arrest "seems to be a case of misunderstanding," because the Mass in question was celebrated inside the seminary chapel. The priests and seminarians are residents of the seminary, UCA News reported. 

The police were reportedly called after neighbors saw the religious sisters arrive at the chapel.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi instituted a 21-day lockdown on March 24.

Another arrest took place in Kerala on March 23, when Fr. Paul Padayatti from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Koodapuzha celebrated a requiem Mass at which more than 100 people attended. Kerala officials also said there have been two other incidents where authorities issued warning to priests conducting Mass.

As of March 29, India has reported 980 cases of COVID-19 and 24 deaths related to the outbreak, according to the New York Times.

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