Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh on Monday met with the Republic of Ireland’s health minister to discuss a new statute that bans public worship, imposing fines and even jail time for those who attend unauthorized events.

Martin, the president of the Irish Bishops Conference, on Friday called the Statutory Instrument “draconian” and a violation of religious freedom.

Ireland is the only country in Western Europe to ban public worship, and attendance at Mass hasn’t been allowed since December 2020.

Stephen Donnelly, the minister of health, asked Martin to meet with him on Monday, also inviting Dr. Colette Bonner from the Office of the Chief Medical Officer.

According to a statement from the bishops’ conference, Martin explained “the deep concerns already expressed with regard to the criminalising of leading, and gathering for, public worship at this time in Ireland despite the consistent support from the Churches for public health messaging since the beginning of the pandemic.”

During the meeting, the archbishop reiterated the Church’s support for the protection of health, but also emphasised the importance of respecting and sustaining people’s spiritual well-being alongside their physical and mental health, calling it “essential.”

Ireland’s Catholic Church worked with health experts to provide COVID-safe worship after the first lockdown was lifted in the summer of 2020, including mandating masks and social distancing during services.

Martin told Donnelly that the “vital pastoral work” clergy and other ministers should also be respected and deemed essential, rather than subject to penal sanction.

“Ministers of religion are often on the front line supporting the sick, the bereaved, the isolated and those who are struggling to cope. Pastoral ministry and spiritual support, which are so important for people during the time of pandemic, ought not to be confined to a small number of legally acceptable and ‘regulated activities’,” the statement said.

Martin also stressed the importance of “regular and meaningful conversation and consultation” between Church leaders, state authorities and public health advisers to ensure that there is “mutual understanding and positive cooperation” during the COVID-19 crisis.

The statement also said Donnelly noted the statutory instrument mandating fines and jail terms for violating COVID rules on public gatherings “was not intended to single out worship.”

The health minister told the archbishop that “religious worship and spiritual well-being were taken very seriously by government and consideration would be given to early re-opening of public worship in accordance with public health advice in the coming weeks.”

 The Irish Church is currently seeking clarification and legal advice regarding the extent and implications of the Statutory Instrument.