Police in Sydney, Australia, broke up a church gathering and handed out the equivalent of more than $25,000 USD in fines to congregants for violating the city’s COVID-19 lockdown on Sunday.
An anonymous tipster reported the illegal service to New South Wales police, who found 60 people worshipping at Christ Embassy church in Blacktown at 7:30 p.m. local time, according to 9News Sydney.
The police arrived a few hours before a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew went into effect for this area, which is designated as a high-risk local government area.
The church service was being livestreamed on social media before police put a stop to it. The 9News report notes that the musicians leading worship were performing without masks.
The church’s pastor, Marvin Osaghae, earlier that day delivered a sermon praying for the end of the coronavirus lockdowns in the city.
“In the name of Jesus, we refuse every lockdown in our cities, in the name of Jesus go ahead and pray,” he urged his congregation.
“We declare the lockdowns are over, in the name of Jesus, lockdowns are over, in the cities of NSW, in the name of Jesus, we declare the lockdowns are over,” he said. “In the cities of NSW, in the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, Hallelujah Father, we thank you Lord.”
Police said that congregants had traveled from across the western portion of the city to attend service.
Thirty adults were each fined a little more than $700 and the church was fined what would be about $3,600 in U.S. dollars for violating the lockdown.
New South Wales officials piled on criticism for the churchgoers.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian called people gathering to worship together on Sunday “very disheartening.”
“I think that all of us feel the disappointment when people just blatantly ignore what’s in place,” she said at a news conference. “We know it is hard. And I’m hoping that obviously in the near future, we’ll be able to relieve the stress on families and households. But it’s always disheartening and disappointing when you see people blatantly take it upon themselves to contradict what we know works.”
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said it was “disappointing to say the least” that people gathered to worship God in person.
“We know these events are superspreaders in our communities, and I think that we rely on our leaders, whether it’s a business leaders, whether it’s a business leader or our premier or our church leaders, to do the right thing, and this is just sending the wrong message in the communities,” he said.
NSW Police Minister David Elliott said he was “actually quite stunned” by the illegal gathering.
“I mean, when you consider that churches are there to profess the message of hope and love and to have those people just endanger communities because they are actually potentially going to spread a virus is extraordinary,” he told 2GB.
Earlier that weekend, thousands of Australian anti-lockdown protesters clashed with police in the streets of Melbourne. An estimated 4,000 people demanded the end of lockdown policies with chants of “Freedom!” and “No more lockdown!”