Hillsong Church has issued an apology after footage of hundreds of people in a youth camp singing and dancing caught the attention of New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet, who remarked he was "completely shocked" by the lack of public safety precautions in the midst of Australia's surging COVID cases.
Health authorities ordered participants to immediately stop singing and dancing as the NSW Police intervened to "ensure future compliance" with COVID restrictions in the state.
"We regret giving any perception that we were not playing our part to keep NSW safe and we sincerely apologize to the community at large," Hillsong Church said in a statement released on Friday, as reported by ABC News. The Australia-based global evangelical church network denied that the youth camp, where hundreds of participants were seen in a video maskless, singing and dancing inside a large tent as artists performed on stage, was a music festival.
"These are high school-aged events that include sporting activities and games," Hillsong Church explained. "They are alcohol-free events, held outdoors, and the number of students attending each camp is just over 200."
According to the Christian Post, Premier Perrorttet was "incredibly disappointed" after seeing footage of the event, which he believed was not in compliance with Australia's exemptions for religious groups.
"Singing and dancing at a major recreational facility is in breach of the public health order," New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard explained in a statement released on Thursday.
But Hillsong Church insisted that "ensuring the safety of those attending Hillsong events, and supporting the wider community effort to keep Australia safe, are both priorities for our church," as per their statement.
Photos and videos posted on Hillsong Church's social media accounts showed dozens of 15 to 17 year old participants singing and dancing without their masks on. The youth camp is set to conclude on Sunday. Hillsong Church insists that the gathering is considered low-risk under the Australian government's guidelines.
They added that the church implemented strict COVID precautionary measures before and during camp gatherings, which included "professional paramedics onsite 24 hours per day with testing capabilities."
The Guardian reported that Hillsong Church faced paying fines of up to $55,000, but after a conversation with the event organizers, NSW Health acting assistant commissioner Peter Glynn said that the agency has decided that "no infringement will be issued," against Hillsong Church.
Under an amendment to the NSW public health order, music festivals are explicitly banned both indoors and outdoors until January 27. However, religious services are exempt to the rule, but the footage that appeared on social media of the Hillsong Church youth camp has angered many at a time when COVID cases have sharply increased across Australia and festivals and concerts are being canceled in response to the Omicron outbreak.
"These camps have a Christian focus and include worship services. Over a three day duration the percentage of time spent singing is minor," Hillsong Church explained. "However, we regret giving any perception that we were not playing our part to keep NSW safe and we sincerely apologise to the community at large."