Christians have left Cameroonian churches that claim COVID-19 does not exist. The defecting Christians say they saw some who obeyed church instructions to ignore barrier measures infected or dying from the virus. Christians are being accepted into other congregations.
This song "When God Speaks" blasts through loudspeakers at Winners Chapel, a popular church in the Fouda neighborhood in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé. The song, by the Nigerian gospel singer Frank Ugochukwu Edwards, is played to welcome 23 new members.
Among them is 37-year-old Annabella Tabot. Tabot says she left the Tabernacles of Freedoms Ministries because her pastor deceived them, saying that COVID-19 did not exist. Tabot says the pastor asked her 60-year-old husband not to go to the hospital and was instead praying for healing from evil spirits.
"His health condition kept on deteriorating and he finally died. Luckily the government came in and isolated him and the other family members were not contaminated," she said.
In August, Cameroon’s government closed Tabernacles of Freedoms Ministries for preaching that COVID-19 is a hoax. Many of its 300 members defied government orders and kept worshiping in front of the closed church.
Tabot said more than 100 members left the church when her sick husband died, shortly after he was suspected of having COVID-19 and forced to go to the hospital by the government.
The Association of Pentecostal Churches in Yaoundé reported that at least 270 Christians left from six churches that preached against the existence of COVID-19. Protus Ngala, pastor of Redemption Ministries says 11 of his followers left.
"I have gone to some of the people," he said. "I made some questionnaires and passed them over to the church [remaining members] to try to know what needs to be adjusted. I try to do all of those things to make sure that I am a better leader. I understand that I also could be defective."
Ngala said he has always believed that COVID-19 exists but thought it could be treated through prayer and fasting.
Governor Naserie Paul Bea of Cameroon’s Center region says the Christians are changing churches after a rigorous campaign he led to educate the public on the dangers of COVID-19. He says churches that do not respect barrier measures to protect against the virus will be punished.
"We need to limit the activities of some of these groups," he said. "We cannot be in a state that is saying one thing and another person is preaching another thing. The [churches] are there to be a relay, not only of the government but equally to teach the people what the Bible says."
Sociologist Paul Emmanuel Somb of the University of Yaoundé says the high wave of defections show people are not happy with most churches’ teachings.
He says many new churches should face reality and acknowledge that their teachings truly do not respond to their member’s growing spiritual and health needs. He says pastors, priests and Imams should be true guarantors of the uprightness and morality of people who are counting on them. He says religious leaders who deceived their followers, saying that COVID-19 does not exist and collected money from them, claiming to instead deliver patients from evil spirits should be held responsible for their actions.
Since March 5 Cameroon has reported more than 19,000 COVID-19 cases, with 415 deaths according to Johns Hopkins University data.
The central African state blames negligence, lack of knowledge and the failure of some churches to educate their members on the dangers of COVID-19 as among the factors in the increasing number of cases.