STAPHORST (Reuters) - Hundreds of Dutch worshippers from a deeply conservative branch of Protestantism gathered in churches across the Netherlands on Sunday, defying government instructions to limit indoor groups to 30 to try to contain surging coronavirus infections.
Although Dutch churches are exempt on constitutional grounds from the government order, almost all church associations had said they would follow the rules, after massive gatherings in some Protestant churches last week had sparked outrage.
Reformed Protestant churches in what is known as the Dutch Bible Belt had made it clear they would continue to receive considerably more than 30 faithful at a time, despite the heavy criticism.
The Bible Belt intersects the Netherlands from the southwest to the northeast and consists mainly of churches of the Reformed Protestant movement, formed in the 19th century, whose adherents also follow a traditional, conservative lifestyle.
The main Reformed Protestant church in Staphorst, in the north of the Netherlands, which can normally accommodate about 2,000 people, said it would allow 150 people per service this Sunday, and they would space themselves at least 3 metres apart.
The church had around 600 people in attendance at each service last Sunday, who wore no face masks and did not refrain from communal singing.
A large church in Barneveld in the centre of the country said it would welcome around 250 people at each of its three services on Sunday.
"We have already scaled back our capacity drastically," a church spokesman told national news agency ANP.
"First we limited attendance to 600, then 400, and if the number of infections keeps rising, we will limit it further."
The Netherlands entered another partial lockdown last week, after becoming one of Europe's hotbeds for new infections. Numbers of new infections have reached record levels almost every day since mid-September, with the total number of infections doubling within three weeks.
(Reporting by Bart Meijer and Piroschka van de Wouw; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)