MASVINGO, Zimbabwe

He is confined indoors, with his four wives and 17 children plagued by coronavirus symptoms. Yet Tongai Muhacha has not ceased conducting church services with members of his flock at his home, after police dispersed them last month from their usual worship site in the bush. 

Muhacha, 57, who lives on the outskirts of Masvingo, Zimbabwe’s oldest town, in the country’s south, runs his own church, boasting over 100 followers – an open-air apostolic sect.

As the coronavirus pummeled this southern African nation, worship services have never been the same at Muhacha’s church, as authorities banned them from gathering amid the battle against the disease.

-Worshipers sick with suspected coronavirus

Now Muhacha coughs, endures chest pains, is apparently weak, and has a runny nose – all symptoms of the novel coronavirus. But as a staunch apostolic church leader, he believes that even without medication, through his church, he will be fine.

But although they have not been tested, his entire family has symptoms of COVID-19, despite none of the worshipers who come for services at Muhacha’s home showing any of the signs, though they may be asymptomatic.

So, as Zimbabwe continues to contend with coronavirus, open-air religious groups like Muhacha’s church that have defied national lockdown rules meant to curtail the disease are fueling fresh spikes of new cases of the dreaded disease.

While some apostolic sects like Muhacha’s have resorted to worshiping at their leader’s home, many others have been more openly defiant, gathering in huge numbers under trees in the bushes.

This has become a trend for the majority of the “white garment” apostolic sects in Zimbabwe, fast-growing faith groupings as desperate Zimbabweans seek divine intervention for their mounting economic hardships as inflation hovers above 800%.

Open-air churches believe they can defeat virus

Even as he battles suspected symptoms of the dreaded disease, Muhacha is adamant that he will be fine without seeking medication.

“We will pray and I will be fine; my family will be fine. The church prays for us too,” Muhacha told Anadolu Agency.

Despite clear signs of COVID-19 symptoms among his entire family, Muhacha’s congregation nevertheless continues flocking to their leader’s home for regular church services.

Under trees, in bushes, below the hills, and on riverbeds, despite Zimbabwe now battling over 6,000 cases of coronavirus, open-air churches like Muhacha’s have remained defiant.

Open-air churches misleading people

In the face of this defiance, physicians like Dr. Denis Chauke, a Masvingo-based general practitioner, say: “We can’t win the fight against COVID-19 when there are worshipers who still gather in bushes to worship, against the lockdown rules.”

“Even as the country continues to register increasing recoveries from coronavirus, apostolic sects still gathering illegally in huge numbers are apparently threatening to spark a fresh humanitarian crisis in this country,” Chauke told Anadolu Agency.

Last month, amid a crackdown on illegal church gatherings to help fight coronavirus, Zimbabwe’s police dispersed over 5,000 members of the Johane Marange Apostolic Church who had gathered on the outskirts of Masvingo for their annual Passover ceremony.

Like Muhacha’s followers, the Johane Marange worshippers were ordered by police to go back to their homes after violating social distancing rules which forbid groups of more than 50 from gathering.

With no vaccine to cure COVID-19, Zimbabwe’s open-air churches like Muhacha’s have claimed they can cure the disease.

“We can heal coronavirus; we pray and sprinkle water on people with the disease and they heal,” said Benard Magundani, one of the church leaders in Muhacha’s apostolic sect.

But medical lab technicians in Zimbabwe like Melford Nhuripiro based in Harare, the country’s capital, are skeptical.

“People must be careful of being conned. Nobody has a cure yet for coronavirus. What apostolic sects are doing is medically unproven, and they put their worshipers in danger of infections from COVID-19,” Nhuripiro told Anadolu Agency.

As coronavirus spreads across the globe, this March Zimbabwe went on a national lockdown, ordering the closure of churches as it banned gatherings of people over 50.

But even then, several of the country’s apostolic sects have skirted the lockdown rules, choosing instead to stick to their normal worship services.

As a result, this has not brought good news for the Southern African nation, as it struggles to surmount spiking cases of the feared disease.

-Few open-air churches are law-abiding

Of Zimbabwe’s few open-air apostolic sects following the lockdown rules, many have turned to modern technology to conduct worship services.

Such are the members of the Johanne Masowe Apostolic sect, who have switched to WhatsApp and Facebook to worship in the face of coronavirus.

“We have to obey the government; we now use WhatsApp and Facebook to worship with my congregants because COVID-19 is real,” Eric Nhara, one of the Johanne Masowe church leaders, told Anadolu Agency.

But even so, the majority of open-air churches like Muhacha’s in Masvingo have defied the law to combat coronavirus, ditching the bushes for their services and switching to their homes instead.

“We are stronger when we worship together and therefore we can’t accept being banned,” said Muhacha, despite ailing from suspected coronavirus.

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