Worshippers reacted with anger after police “brutally” ordered them out of a Good Friday service and threatened them each with a £200 fine for breaching Covid restrictions.
Officers shut down the service at Christ the King Polish church in Balham, south London, telling those assembled inside that they were breaking the law.
Footage showed officers interrupting the Liturgy of the Lord's Passion at around 6pm on Friday, with one filmed telling parishioners that the gathering was "unfortunately unlawful under the coronavirus regulations".
He added: "You are not allowed to meet inside with this many people under law. At this moment in time you need to go home. Failure to comply with this direction to leave and go to your home address, ultimately could lead you to be fined £200 or, if you fail to give your details, to you being arrested.”
The officer added: “It's Good Friday and I appreciate you would like to worship, but this gathering is unlawful.”
Christ the King church condemned the Metropolitan Police operation, accusing officers of having "brutally exceeded their powers by issuing their warrant for no good reason" because "all government requirements were met".
It said it had informed the superiors of the Polish Catholic Mission in England and Wales about the incident, adding: "We regret that the rights of the faithful have been wronged on such an important day for every believer and that our worship has been profaned.”
The church argued that the latest government guidelines for Lent, Holy Week and Easter allowed services to take place with the participation of the faithful, provided sanitary and distancing measures were put in place.
The latest coronavirus government guidance for England states that communal worship can be attended by as many people as the place of worship can safely accommodate, but that worshippers should maintain social distancing from anyone not from their own household or support bubble.
Scotland Yard said officers had been called to a report of "crowds of people queuing outside a church in Balham High Road" and that “officers engaged with the priest outside the church”.
The Metropolitan Police said in a statement: "Officers attended and found a large number of people inside the church. Some people were not wearing masks and those present were clearly not socially distanced. Officers made the decision that it was not safe for that particular service to continue.”
"Understanding the sensitivity of the situation, and were invited inside to address the congregation. No fixed penalty notices were issued.”
It added: “This was one of a series of numerous events taking place at the church over the Easter period. We are engaging with church authorities today and will continue to do so in the coming days."
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, MP for Tooting, said she was "deeply disturbed" by the disbanding of the service, adding: "Being of Polish heritage, I understand the sanctity of this day. No doubt this was deeply distressing."
She said police were working with the local community, with church services resumed on Saturday, and urged people to continue following Covid guidelines.