Members of the Polish Catholic community have slammed the police after a Good Friday service was shut down for breaching Covid rules and worshippers were threatened with £200 fines.
Officers shut down the religious ceremony in Balham High Street, south London, at around 5pm on Friday, with footage showing ond telling worshippers that the gathering was ‘unlawful’ and that they had to go home.
Today, dozens of Christians attended Easter Mass services at Christ the King Polish Roman Catholic Church – with many forced to kneel outside to avoid overcrowding.
Around 50 smartly-dressed worshippers had to listen to Mass through speakers introduced after police broke up the Good Friday service.
Many families with small children gathered outside, before being allowed to go in to the church later when there was more room inside.
Though two police officers arrived and spoke to church stewards, they left soon after, not repeating Friday’s extraordinary scenes when cops stood at the altar and demanded worshippers go home.
However, there was still anger among worshippers with many accusing officers of overstepping the mark.
Tomsz Niewiadomski, who was queuing to see the second mass of the day, said everyone inside on Friday was wearing masks and social distancing.
The 39-year-old, who lives in nearby Streatham, south London, said: ‘Its not right what they did. The police didn’t seem to know the rules.
‘I was standing just inside the door at the back. They came in and said everyone was breaking the law before checking what was in place. They said no one was social distancing and it was unsafe.
‘But everyone was wearing masks and sitting apart from each other. There was a booking system so there was only a certain number of people inside.
‘We know we have to respect the law. It seemed like the police did not know what we could and couldn’t do.’
A police spokesperson said: ‘Officers attended and found a large number of people inside the church. Some people were not wearing masks and those present were clearly not socially distanced.
‘Understanding the sensitivity of the situation, officers engaged with the priest outside the church and were invited inside to address the congregation. No fixed penalty notices were issued.’
Police shut down a Good Friday service at a Polish church in Balham High Street, south London, at around 5pm yesterday, with officers threatening worshippers with £200 fines
Christians kneel outside during an Easter Sunday service due to lack of space indoors because of covid-19 social distancing guidelines
The church had its Good Friday service interrupted by police who said the church had violated Covid-19 rules on gatherings
Worshippers were given hand sanitiser as they visited the Polish Catholic Church in Balham for Easter Mass this morning
Official coronavirus guidance states communal worship or prayer can be attended by as many people as a place of worship can accommodate, as long as they are socially distanced. Masks should be worn, according to the government rules.
Martina Pawlanska, 54, from south London, said: ‘We respected the rules to do with Covid, people are allowed to go to church as long as we follow the rules. I doesn’t make sense what the police did.
‘If you go to the supermarket people are gathered inside, even closer together and it is allowed.’
Another worshipper who did not want to be named added: ‘I think the police really overreacted. We are a peaceful community, we stick to the rules. They should not have ordered everyone to leave like that.’
During the second service around 40 people stood outside and quietly listened to the Mass pumped out via the speakers.
Despite the police presence today, it is believed the authorities will not be issuing fines to those who attended on Friday.
Merek Mendel, chairman of the church, said he was disgusted with way the police acted as Good Friday such a special occasion for Catholics.
He said: ‘It was disgusting what they [the police] did. Good Friday is one of the most sacred days for us.
‘I feel sorry for the officers they actually didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know the law.
‘We know how many people we can let inside, we have people monitoring how many are in and the queue, as well as the distance between people.
‘We have signs and hand washing, it’s very safe. We have been doing this since we reopened after the first lockdown.
Christians stand outside during an Easter Sunday service due to lack of space indoors because of covid-19 social distancing guidelines
Christians sit apart socially distanced during an Easter Sunday service at Christ the King church this morning in Balham
Around 50 smartly-dressed worshippers had to listen to Mass through speakers introduced after police broke up the Good Friday service
Though two police officers arrived and spoke to church stewards, they left soon after, not repeating Friday’s extraordinary scenes
‘The police threatened to fine everyone £200, and fine the church £10,000. We don’t want any problems or trouble.
‘They [the police] tried to defend themselves and say if you are not going to complain we will not take it any further than that.
‘They came today, looked around and can see we have everything in place.’
Lukaz Kaczmarak, 17, from Streatham Common, said: ‘The police were here again today, but I wonder if they were here to try and catch us out.
‘They are scared they made a mistake so now want to prove that we are breaking the rules in whatever way they can find, so came back to check up on us.’
Speaking about the police’s actions on Friday he added: ‘We were all very surprised and upset. Everyone had masks on, everything was disinfected. Th priest is always telling us to wear masks and keep our distance.
‘Normally there would be many, many people, but on Friday there were only a few compared to previous years.
‘The reason we were so upset was because this is one of the most important days in the Catholic calender.
‘If the event was two weeks ago or two weeks in the future there wouldn’t have been so much hurt, but Good Friday is very important.
‘We don’t mind doing services online, but the rules changed and this was one of the first times there was an opportunity to come in person.
‘The timing of the police intervention was also bad because the police came in before we could take the eucharist, which for us is very important.
‘Also the police were not very respectful. The female officer came in, walked around and stood on the altar. I don’t know if she doesn’t believe in God, but it could have been handled better and more respectfully.’
Agnes Mucha, who was also at the service added: ‘I think it’s such a shame. There was a ticket sytem, everyone was wearing masks and socially distancing.
‘There was a lot less people then at a normal mass.
‘The police have got to do their job, if as far as they see it practicing faith is breaching the law, then we have to go along with that.’
The parish Parafia Chrystusa Krola — Christ the Believer — issued a statement after Friday saying it believes police ‘brutally exceeded their powers’.
It urged those present at the ceremony to file a formal complaint to the Metropolitan Police, adding: ‘We asked the police authorities to explain the incident and we are waiting for their response.’
Bishop of Buckingham Rt Rev Alan Wilson also questioned breaking up the service, telling Channel 4 News that the Government needs to clarify its coronavirus guidelines for churches.
And people on social media slammed the police’s ‘disgraceful’ handling of the situation, with some describing it as ‘deeply offensive’.
Meanwhile, just under five miles away at a crowded Parliament Square, thousands of protestors gathered at a Kill the Bill rally chanting, banging drums and waving placards before scuffles broke out with police.
During the second service around 40 people stood outside and quietly listened to the Mass pumped out via the speakers
Christians sit apart socially distanced during an Easter Sunday service at Christ the King church this morning
Communal worship in churches, synagogues, mosques and other spaces is allowed under current rules, albeit with mask-wearing and social distancing
The Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark said the intervention had occurred during the solemn liturgy, which would have taken just 30 minutes to complete. It said the Archbishop of Southwark, John Wilson, had visited to find out what had happened.
The archdiocese said in a statement: ‘The Archbishop has discussed this matter with the Rector of the Catholic Polish Mission, Mgr Stefan Wylezek, who intends to contact the Metropolitan Police authorities about how the situation was handled.
‘Public worship is permissible where COVID hygiene procedures are in place and national guidance has been issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.’
England’s current lockdown rules specify that ‘limits for communal worship should be decided on the basis of the capacity of the place of worship following an assessment of risk’.
People are also encouraged not to mingle after a service and go back to their homes as quickly as possible.
In the video, a police officer tells a church full of worshippers wearing face masks that they have to stop the Good Friday service.
He says: ‘You are not allowed to meet inside with this many people under law. At this moment in time you need to go home.
‘Failure to comply with this direction to leave and go to your home address, ultimately could lead you to be fined £200 or, if you fail to give your details, to you being arrested.
‘It’s Good Friday and I appreciate you would like to worship, but it is unlawful.’
The church criticised the police for interrupting the service, reported Sky News.
In a statement, the parish said: ‘The policemen found our liturgical assembly illegal, ordering everyone to leave our temple immediately on pain of a £200 fine for each parishioner present or even arrest.
‘The faithful obeyed this order without objection. All government requirements had been complied with.
‘We regret that the rights of the faithful have been wronged on such an important day for every believer.’
It also provided a link explaining how to make a complaint about the police force in the statement on its website, saying: ‘Anyone present at the liturgy may also send their complaint directly via the link below.’
The church also said it believes the officers ‘brutally exceeded their powers by issuing their warrant for no good reason’ because ‘all government requirements were met’.
The incident has been reported to the superiors of the Polish Catholic Mission in England and Wales, the church added.
People on social media have slammed the police for shutting down the service, labelling the handling of the situation ‘disproportionate’.
One wrote: ‘I’m actually ashamed of what you did on Good Friday of all days. Stop hiding behind Covid transmission, when we see large scale protests being facilitated at this very minute in London.’
Teresa Wilkins said: ‘Disgraceful, disproportionate and deeply offensive on the most solemn day of the Catholic calendar.’
Another wrote: ‘Absolutely disgraceful behaviour by the police.’
And a fourth added: ‘Another example of the UK police having a dreadful pandemic.’
Meanwhile, just under five miles away at a crowded Parliament Square, thousands of protestors gathered at a Kill the Bill rally chanting, banging drums and waving placards before scuffles broke out with police