A court in Myanmar has sentenced a Canadian pastor to three months in jail for holding church services in defiance of a ban on gatherings to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
David Lah, who is of Burmese origin, and his colleague, Myanmar national Wai Tun, were charged in April under a disaster management law over services they held in the city of Yangon.
Both men were convicted of breaking administrative rules and were given a three-month hard labour sentence, Maung Soe, a judge at Yangon’s Mayangone Township court, told reporters on Thursday.
“The judge also took into consideration the time he’s already spent in detention, so he could very well be released in the next few days or weeks even,” Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi said in her report from Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Myanmar imposed a ban on mass gatherings in mid-March, but footage emerged in early April of Lah holding a service in Yangon.
“If people hold the Bible and Jesus in their hearts, the disease will not come in,” he proclaimed in one video to a roomful of faithful. “The only person who can cure and give peace in this pandemic is Jesus.”
Shortly afterwards, about 20 people who took part in Lah’s gatherings in April, including Lah himself, tested positive for the coronavirus, an official said at the time.
This led to a cluster of 67 cases, according to Thar Tun Kyaw, a spokesman for the health ministry. The cluster was one of the largest in Myanmar, which has only reported 357 cases and six deaths related to the virus.
The preacher was arrested after recovering from the illness in May and faced up to three years in jail for violating the Natural Disaster and Management Law.
On Thursday, the Yangon court went with the lesser sentence of three months. Outside the court, a waiting crowd of about 50 of the preacher’s followers erupted into cheers and celebrations at the news.
Toronto-based Lah, 43, was born in Myanmar and often returns to his motherland, where he has a large following, to preach.
“He’s also known for making controversial comments, claiming that the teaching of Buddhist monks can make people sinful and he’s made derogatory comments about Islam and the LGBTQ community as well,” said Looi.
Religious gatherings across the world have at times been triggers for the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 18 million people globally and killed nearly 700,000.
Lah’s scandal even touched Myanmar’s Christian Vice President Henry Van Thio and his family, who had attended an earlier service with Lah in February, although they later tested negative.
About 6 percent of Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s population identifies as one of the various Christian denominations in the country.