Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's government released Thursday a list of essential services to be maintained amid the coronavirus pandemic that includes religious services, which are currently suspended in the country's two most populous states as part of a prohibition on large gatherings.
"Religious activities, of whatever nature" are to be permitted as long as they comply with the "determinations" of the Health Ministry, according to the decree published in the official gazette.
Most houses of worship in Brazil have abandoned in-person services in favor of televised rites, but many remain open to offer members of the congregation in need of "individual" attention.
Latin America's largest nation has 2,433 confirmed infections with the Covid-19 coronavirus, while 57 deaths are blamed on the illness.
Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly denied the seriousness of the pandemic and called for an end to social distancing measures, insists that state governors don't have the authority to shut down religious services.
But the states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which together account for most the cases in Brazil, have not hesitated to put restrictions on houses of worship.
After the publication of Bolsonaro's decree, the Rio state Attorney General's Office urged Gov. Wilson Witzel to take steps to ensure "suspension of all and every kind of in-person gathering in the ambit of religious organizations."
Besides declaring religious rites an essential service, the 65-year-old president ordered the re-opening of all federal lottery shops.
Dismissing the recommendations from Brazil's own experts and the World Health Organization, Bolsonaro asserts that social distancing should apply only to the elderly and infirm, even after more than a dozen of the people who accompanied him earlier this month on an official visit to the United States tested positive for Covid-19.
"If the policy of isolation continues we will have chaos and the virus together," the right-wing president told reporters Wednesday in Brasilia.
That comment spurred criticism from across the political spectrum.
Late Wednesday, the governors of all of Brazil's 27 states held a teleconference without Bolsonaro and proclaimed their intention to ignore the president and continue dealing with the pandemic in accord with the best scientific advice.
The top officials of Brazil's 5,571 municipalities have taken a similar stand.
"To care for the lives of people and citizens of all ages must be the humanitarian principle for whoever has the responsibility of leading," the National Front of Mayors said in a statement. EFE nbo/dr