A non-denominational Christian pastor has been given a prosecution notice and threatened with up to six months in prison by Gardaí for opening her church on Easter Sunday.
Pastor Sharon Perry of the Abundant Grace Christian Assembly in Ringsend, Dublin, said her congregation were upset and anxious after Gardaí took action when she opened her church during the Level 5 restrictions.
“On Easter Sunday the Gardai set up checkpoints all around our church building,” the Pastor said. “The officers stopped each person coming to the church, they were questioned and had their personal details taken. This was extremely upsetting, indeed frightening, for many. They were told they were committing an offence, but then allowed to enter the building.
“We were very glad to be able to celebrate the resurrection of our wonderful Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, as is our constitutional right. However, not knowing if they were going to come in again and arrest everyone did put a strain on what should have been the highlight of our Christian calendar.”
One woman was so rattled by the experience that she shed tears.
“I hate this,” she said. “I just gave in to everything I believe in. I didn’t want to give my name and address. I didn’t do anything wrong. I shouldn’t have to do that. It’s the principle of them asking me. Never in my life have I had an issue with the police until this week.”
The Easter indoor gathering of around 25 people – which was fully socially distanced, and featured roughly an hour of prayer and religious song – was ultimately allowed to go ahead. However, while most worshipers were allowed to leave unimpeded, Pastor Perry herself was confronted by Gardaí as soon as she stepped outside.
“The inspector was waiting for me as I left the building and quietly told me that I would be prosecuted for having the service, which would result in a fine of up to €2,500, or a six months prison sentence.”
Pastor Sharon Perry has already received a €500 fixed penalty notice for opening her church the previous Sunday, which she says she has no intention of paying.
However, she added that “Those on duty conducted themselves in a professional, sensitive and dignified way, for which we were very grateful.”
The Sunday prior, a pastor was arrested after police broke up one of the church services.
“On Sunday 28 March two officers of An Garda Siochana from the Irishtown Station entered our church towards the end of our service,” Pastor Perry said.
“One officer came right up to me, at the pulpit, as I was leading worship and told me to stop the meeting immediately. I explained we were about to finish and that I would first close in prayer, as we always did, and then speak with him. Afterwards, while giving this officer my details, his colleague was physical with our guest Pastor Cronin. We felt their behavior was extremely aggressive and intimidating.
“They proceeded to arrest Pastor Cronin and during their actions I was left with bruising to my upper arm, chest and ankle. I went to the station, where Pastor Cronin was shortly released, but I was refused the right to make any report regarding either assault. I was told to make my complaint to the Ombudsman and leave the station immediately or be arrested. I was forcefully driven out of the station by a group of Gardai who repeatedly used foul language.”
One passerby stopped to complain, claiming to have witnessed the incident.
“Here we are [on the anniversary of Easter 1916], celebrating men and women who died for freedom,” he said.
“That gang down there in police uniforms…that’s not what those men and women died for. This is Ireland – I believe in equality. Garda Síochana is supposed to mean “protectors of the peace”. Not persecutors. I’m not religious – I don’t believe in Catholicism, I don’t even believe in God. But I believe in fairness, and equality. And what happened to that man last week was disgraceful.”
Pastor Perry went on to state that she believes the government has “lost their way” with the Covid-19 restrictions.
“When a secular humanist government attempts to remove God from a nation, the result is great confusion and ultimately a dark void. I believe some of our public servants are being put in an unenviable position of breaking their oath, to have regard for human rights and uphold the constitution.
“Our Health Minister, Stephen Donnelly, stood up in the Dáil Éireann last October and said religious services did not constitute a penal offence. Yet the Gardai are making him out to be a liar, as they charge people with having committed an offence by going to church.
“The expression of one’s faith is not an event. The church should not be categorized alongside museums and art galleries. The church is an essential service which should always remain open, to provide for the spiritual needs and to bring much needed hope and light to our nation.
“I am very thankful for the rural TD’s and indeed a few others who have recently raised their voices to challenge this ridiculous situation….God forgive us and have mercy on our land.”
The pastor has stated that she does not intend to pay either fine, saying that she is guilty of no offence. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I will go to prison for this on principle”, she added.