Party leaders condemn church focus of S.O.E. orders

State of emergency restrictions limiting the number of people attending Sunday church services and enforcing social distancing between them have been condemned by the leaders of three political parties. 

Laaulialemlietoa Leautea Schmidt, Asiata Valasi Tafito and Afualo Dr. Wood Salele believe the churches have been unfairly singled out by the orders.

Last week, the Government reminded church Ministers they were responsible for ensuring social distancing regulations were followed. 

Church leaders have also been told that no more than a hundred people are allowed in a service. 

La'aulialemalietoa, a Member of Parliament and the leader of the Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.), believes the Government is overreaching its power. 

"The Government is not consistent with the enforcement of this order," La'auli told the Samoa Observer. 

"What they should be focusing on is making sure that our borders are closed and we need to control our borders and monitor it well. This enforcement is unnecessary. They should give people the freedom to move around, and the freedom to pray and worship on Sunday.

"This is what dictatorship looks like, they are abusing the power they have by enforcing this order on our people. Let the nation be free."

He went on to say that the Government was being "harsh" on the churches by enforcing this order, while Samoa remains free of the virus.

While Samoa remains one of less than a dozen nation states without a confirmed case of the virus, the Government says social distancing of two metres is to be strictly observed at services. 

On Sunday, the C.C.C.S. at Moata'a had to send children home after Sunday school; no children were allowed in the church for the service. The choir was spread out and the two metre distancing requirement was observed. 

Last Sunday was the ‘Aso Sa o le Talalelei’ for all C.C.C.S. parishes, to commemorate the arrival of Christian missionaries to Samoa 190 years ago.  Typically all the parishes around Samoa gather together in different districts (pulega), to commemorate the occasion. 

But this year, only a few representatives from different parishes were allowed to attend the nationwide gathering of different districts (pulega). 

"Last Sunday was a special day not only for this country but also for the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (C.C.C.S.) as they celebrated 190 years since the arrival of missionaries in Samoa,” La’auli said. 

"The Talalelei is an annual event where churches come together and celebrate the arrival of Christianity and it's a historic event. 

"Now the people are scared of breaching this order, therefore, they are hesitant to attend the services on Sunday. We get true healing from God, and we are a country founded on God and we give our Christian values and beliefs our utmost respect. 

"This move from the Government is discouraging people from attending services on Sundays. Where is the rationale in this order, when we do not enforce it in other public gatherings like sports and official opening? 

"They are coming out too strong to enforce this with churches and warned the church ministers that they would be fined if they do not monitor the order in churches."

The leader of the Samoa National Democratic Party (S.N.D.P.) - which announced last week a merger with F.A.S.T. and Tumua ma Pule - shared similar sentiments. 

While he applauds the Government’s effort in making sure COVID-19 does not reach Samoa, Asiata Valasi Tafito believes that the Government "has gone too far".

"We don't have a confirmed case in Samoa," he said. 

"That's a good thing for us, but does not mean we have to force these orders on our people. 

"We are a country founded on God, our people are used to going to church every Sunday. 

"The concern for me is, we have been on lockdown for six months now, we don't have any case, and now they are urging church ministers to monitor these things."

Enforcing this order on other gatherings is okay, according to Asiata. However, enforcing it on churches is a "bit harsh", he said. 

"Where is our faith in God?", he said.

"We should be encouraging our people to go to church on Sunday, especially now, because we need God more than ever to protect us from the deadly disease that has affected millions of lives.

According to La'auli, the Government is using the global pandemic as an excuse to "exercise their power."

"They are using global pandemic as an excuse, but the [provision of] services are [how] we uplift this nation and this country. We gather on Sundays, to pray for the future and the safety of our families and this country,” he said. 

"They are over-doing this, and there is no need to minimise the number of people in churches. Give our people the opportunity to worship and pray, freely, without having to worry about anything else. 

"Just a reminder, not all laws and orders the Government makes are correct. How many times have they formulated laws only to have them amended again? 

"Whatever decision they make should be for the benefit of the people of this country. 

“They (people) hold the power, not the Government.” 

Asiata also questioned the Government about whether they had paid the same level of attention to enforcing social distancing requirements at schools and games, 

"There are more students attending schools than an average congregation in Samoa. So why are we enforcing this only in churches, when we also have hundreds of people at the games to watch and cheer for their team?,” Asiata said. 

He argued that the Government’s focus was misdirected and that it should instead be concerned with "controlling our borders."

"They should be strict on the control of our borders. If they focus on that, we would need not to worry about the disease entering Samoa. 

"However, they should let our people do what they normally do as citizens of this country."

Asiata went on to accuse the Government of taking advantage of the  state of emergency orders to attract funds from our international partners. 

Tautua Party leader, Luagalau Afualo Dr. Wood Salele argued that the Government’s enforcement strategy was not rational. 

“There is no COVID-19, so whatever they say, it does not make sense that they are forcing these orders on our people, at this time,” he said in response to questions from the Samoa Observer. 

"The reality is, it has gone too far. 

"We are law-abiding citizens and since they are at the helm, they need to make sure that the laws they put in place are wise, not only just to exercise their power and authority. It’s getting out of control."

He reiterated that the Government should make use of the resources and money to "control our borders."

"Even if it means stopping the flights coming into Samoa, so be it,” Luagalau said. 

"But we need to give our people the opportunity to thrive economically, and the church is one of the core components of the economy 

"Spiritually, we need not enforce this order on churches as it disrupts their spiritual minds. 

"To me, it's very sad to see that the government has come down strongly using COVID-19 to enforce the lockdown."

Tautua’s leader took the opportunity to send a reminder to the nation.

"Be vigilant and be very wise," said Luagalau. "We see more social problems emerging and the government is being heavy-handed with their response to the absent COVID-19. 

"We would agree with their efforts if we have a confirmed case. By all means, shut down everything. 

"But the Government should exercise that wisdom because the longer they continue on (with orders) the more our people will be confused. 

 "We are law-abiding people, so even if we disagree, we will abide by the law. 

"If this is the Government's way of exercising their power, then they have to be cautious. 

"Put the resources where they are needed. The country has been suffering long enough, from the measles and now with COVID-19, so whatever stimulus packages they have been dishing out lately, that is the icing on the cake. 

"But they need to allow people to grow economically and the government should step up and help the private sector rise and help our people spiritually."

The Government was contacted for comment in response to the concerns raised by the three leaders through an email sent to the Press Secretariat. 

Nanai Laveitiga Tuiletufuga "noted" receiving the email but did not return a comment by deadline. 

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