The church group involved in a protest against mandated mask-wearing in Steinbach on the weekend was not, despite appearances and speculation on social media, comprised of Hutterites.
They were members of the Church of God, an independent congregation affiliated with the organization's headquarters in Greenville, Ohio.
More than 100 people attended the Hugs Over Masks rally in the city 60 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg. Participants, some of whom shouted profanities at health-order enforcement officers, ignored social-distancing guidelines.
Not far away at Bethesda Regional Health Centre, overwhelmed doctors and nurses were forced to triage some patients in their vehicles as COVID-19 case numbers spiked in the community.
Church of God members' plain attire — women in long skirts and men in all black or dark clothing — led some observers to the incorrect assumption that the anti-maskers were from a Manitoba Hutterite colony.
Gloria Froese, a former Church of God member, has attempted to set the record straight on social media.
"There were no Hutterites at (Saturday's) shameful rally," she wrote in a Facebook post Sunday. "They would never dream of doing such a despicable thing. They are generally kind, peace-loving people that keep to themselves."
Kenny Wollmann, a member of the Hutterian Safety Council's COVID-19 task force, said the confusion is cause for concern.
"Although it is impossible to say with certainty whether or not there were Hutterites in attendance, the people shown in the photos (of the rally) are not Hutterite," he said.
"Hutterites tend not to participate in these types of events."
He said Manitoba Hutterite communities have been encouraged to obey public health orders, including mask-wearing.
Heinrich Hildebrandt, minister at the Steinbach Church of God — which goes by the name Church of God Restoration in legal documents — said he and others from the 150-member congregation south of Steinbach attended the protest because "we are seeing worldwide oppression against people... our rights are being taken away."
By attending the rally, he said, the church wasn’t trying to be "disrespectful," but to "expose the things that are going on."
He also believes governments are taking exaggerated measures against the pandemic — such as requiring people to wear masks.
Hildebrandt said the protest was not just about masks, and added people should be able to wear one if they wish.
“Although it is impossible to say with certainty whether or not there were Hutterites in attendance, the people shown in the photos (of the rally) are not Hutterite.” – Kenny Wollmann, a member of the Hutterian Safety Council's COVID–19 task force
Although he doesn’t believe masks can stop the spread of the virus, the main issue is being forced to wear one.
This violates his religious rights, he said, adding, "As a Christian I just can’t go along with it, in good conscience."
And he said the mandate goes beyond the government of Manitoba to "powerful people with an agenda," such as billionaire social activist Bill Gates.
"I’m not saying there is a conspiracy, but there are things going on that are being covered up," he said.
There are plans to hold more rallies in the province, but Hildebrandt would not provide further details.
"If people are silenced, we give way to tyranny, to the government taking away our God-given rights," he said.
His comments were echoed by Henry Hildebrandt (no relation), a Church of God minister in Aylmer, Ont., who has been a vocal opponent of that province’s mask mandates and restrictions on worship services.
"Masks are not the problem," said Hildebrandt,, who was in Manitoba in October speaking to groups in Winkler, Steinbach and Winnipeg.
The problem, he said, is "people are being socially conditioned" to give up their rights.
At first, he said, he was willing to shut down his church’s services in an effort to flatten the curve. But then he found out "we had been tricked."
Saying there is "no scientific evidence for masks," he stated the mandates go against the constitutional rights of Canadians, including the right to worship freely and sing in church.
At first, Henry Hildebrandt, a Church of God minister in Aylmer, Ont., said, he was willing to shut down his church’s services in an effort to flatten the curve. But then he found out “we had been tricked.”
"It’s all about the money," he said, adding the pandemic is overblown and that Bill Gates stands to profit off it.
Although not a Mennonite, Hildebrandt draws on his Anabaptist heritage of resisting authority when it contradicts his conscience and faith.
"I’m a Christian, and my foundation is the Bible," he said. "This country was founded on the supremacy of God and religious freedom is a God-given freedom."
During this crisis, "it’s a terrible thing to see the grocery store and liquor store parking lots full, but the church parking lots empty," he said.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.