Police apologise for 'distress' caused to pastor threatened with prosecution over legal church broadcast

(Photo: Unsplash/Gregory Hayes)

Thames Valley Police have apologised after wrongly breaking up a legal church broadcast and pressing charges against the pastor.

Rev Daniel Mateolo said he was left feeling "deeply shocked and hurt" after nine officers disrupted an online broadcast taking place at Kingdom Faith Ministries International Church in Milton Keynes.

The broadcast, on 20 November, was part of a men's conference to support male congregants struggling in the pandemic. 

Police turned up at the Pentecostal church after receiving reports of "loud music", and demanded that support staff working on the broadcast leave the building. 

Although in-person services were banned during the second national lockdown, government guidance permitted church leaders to broadcast to their congregation online from their buildings. 

Support staff deemed essential to the running of the service, like singers and sound engineers, were also permitted to be present, with no limit on this number. 

According to the Christian Legal Centre, which is assisting Pastor Mateola, police insisted that he only needed two people in the building - "one to speak and one to hold the phone and record". 

Officers also claimed there were 30 people in the building at the time of the broadcast.  Pastor Mateola refuted this, saying there were only 15, each with a specific role and in separate rooms to ensure social distancing. 

After breaking up the broadcast, police later turned up at the 49-year-old's home and told him he would be prosecuted for breaking Covid-19 regulations.

Thames Valley Police have since apologised over the incident. 

Chief Superintendent Robert France said there had been "a misunderstanding by our officers of the legislation in place in what is an ever-changing and complex area of enforcement".

He added: "There has been a mistake in the issuing of this ticket and I would like to apologise for the distress I know this is likely to have caused."

Pastor Mateola, one of 122 church leaders pursuing a judicial review against the English and Welsh forced closure of churches, said he was "relieved" police had recognised their mistake and apologised. 

"I have been treated like a criminal while legally seeking to be a blessing and to bring hope to my fellow citizens at a time of great need physically, emotionally and spiritually," he said.

"Sadly, the government and police appear to have no understanding of what a church is, what it does and why it is so important to our society, especially for the most vulnerable and the lonely.

"Although I have joined a legal challenge against the government's decision to close churches, I have nevertheless followed the regulations that have been in force. Despite this I still found myself facing prosecution.

"If the police do not understand the regulations it is small wonder that church leaders are confused."

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said the police's actions were "astonishing and disturbing". 

"If someone had said at the start of 2020 that by November the police would be interpreting and enforcing government rules which involved closing down legal broadcasts from a church and prosecuting a pastor, no one would have believed them," she said.

"Yet this is the current reality for church leaders seeking to legally function and faithfully serve their congregation and communities in need under government covid-19 regulations.

"There are so many other things the police could be doing to support and protect our communities at this time of crisis. Why go to so much effort to shut down an online church broadcast?

"The wider issue and principle at stake is that the forced closure of churches and interference by the secular government violates centuries of constitutional tradition. The church serves at the heart of our public life and as well as seeking to meet the physical needs of many it exists to bring the Good News and hope of Jesus Christ in the middle of a national crisis.

"We call on the government and the police to urgently engage and seek to fully understand what a church is, why they are so important to our communities, why the freedom to worship matters and why churches are needed now more than ever at this unprecedented time."