Ebola dampens New Year watchnight services in Liberia
Ebola is casting its shadow over the traditional watchnight service organized by churches across Liberia on December 31 to welcome the New Year.

"Ebola has caused a lot of embarrassment for our country, and so, because of the midnight curfew, I have told my congregation to stay home and pray," Pastor Roland Davis of Love Center Ministries International told the Anadolu Agency.

Churches across Liberia organize special late-night services on New Year's Eve to bid the outgoing year farewell and welcome in the new.

Thousands of Christians, including many who aren't regular churchgoers, flock to churches nationwide, where they spend hours praying, dancing and singing.

The faithful only start leaving church after midnight – a practice that won't be possible this year due to a nighttime curfew imposed by the government in hopes of curbing Ebola.

In August, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced a raft of measures – including a 12-hours curfew – aimed at containing the deadly virus.

Curfew hours have since been halved, currently starting at midnight and ending at 6am.

"The watchnight service and celebrations are over by midnight; that's when everyone begins to leave for their homes," said Pastor Davis.

"But with this midnight curfew in place, there is no way my congregants can reach their homes," he asserted.

"The government has not lifted the curfew yet. We have to obey the government," the clergyman added.

In recent months, Ebola – a contagious disease for which there is no known treatment or cure – has killed 7,588 people, mostly in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

In Liberia alone, the deadly virus has claimed 3,384 lives.

New Ebola infections, however, have fallen drastically since November, with only four of Liberia's 15 counties still reporting new cases.

The government has warned that large public gatherings are one of the means by which the virus spreads.

Noting how churches are usually packed for watchnight, Pastor Davis believes that suspending services this year will help curb Ebola.

"Every year at watchnight, when the clock strikes midnight, people dance and hug each other, shake hands and welcome one another into the New Year," he noted.

"There is no way, as pastor, I can stop people from doing those things, especially the way watchnights are packed with people," he added. "We will have watchnight next year."

Accommodations

Other churches, meanwhile, are trying to work around the midnight curfew.

Bethel Cathedral of Hope, one of Liberia's biggest churches, believes that gatherings like watchnight services are necessary for thanking God for carrying Liberians through a difficult 2014.

"When Ebola was hot, we as a church did not carelessly gather our people. We were involved in raising Ebola awareness," Bishop Wollo Belleh of Bethel World Outreach Ministries told AA.

"At Bethel, not one member of our church died from Ebola," he said. "So to end the year without going to church to thank God would be unfair."

Bishop Belleh said the church had asked congregants to spend the night of New Year's Eve at church this year instead of at home.

"We are not going to depend on physical happenings, but [we will] rather trust in God to usher us into 2015," he insisted.

Congregant Emmanuel Fallah, for one, can't wait to usher in the New Year.

"I can't miss watchnight," he told AA. "Me and my woman will be at church early and will take our blankets with us to sleep there."

Bishop John Klayee of the Jubilee Praise and Worship Center, which boasts a 1,000-strong congregation, said that the church would begin watchnight services early to allow members to get home before the midnight curfew.

"We will have watchnight, but we will do all we can to avoid overcrowding in the church by placing a projector outside to film the entire service," he told AA.

"We expect to finish the service before midnight to allow congregants to get home before curfew," asserted the prelate.

"I don't want to risk the lives and safety of my flock; therefore, we will have busses to drop them off [at home] after watchnight services," he added.

For his part, Pastor Joseph Elliot of Hope in God Ministries hopes the government will lift the curfew to allow Christians to celebrate watchnight services.

"I want the president to lift the curfew just for one day to allow us to gather and thank God for our nation," he told AA.

But whether the president will lift the curfew before New Year given the notable reduction in the number of fresh Ebola cases being reported remains unclear.

"If the curfew is not lifted, my church might start watchnight services early and leave early," said Elliot.

"It's not the way watchnight should be observed, but we can't do anything," he lamented. "We may just stay home and pray on watchnight."

John Tamba and is family, for their part, have decided to usher in the New Year at home.

"Every year, we have been to watchnight," Tamba, 28, told AA.

"If I don't go this year, it won't change anything," he said. "Me and my family will just stay home and thank God."

AA
Last Modified: 2014-12-30 15:17:34
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