A Virus Outbreak Scares In Places Of Worship In Asia


MANILA, Philippines (AP) – In a popular Catholic church in the Philippines, almost half of the banks were empty for Sunday mass. The few hundred faithful who attended were asked to avoid shaking or holding the hands of others during prayer to prevent the spread of a virus that began in China.

In Hong Kong, Cardinal John Hon Tong, with a mask on his face, announced the suspension of public masses for two weeks and urged the faithful to follow the homily online.

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As part of an order to avoid “collective religious activities,” Buddhist temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques closed their doors on January 29 in mainland China, where an outbreak of a new coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, in the center of the country.

The restrictions and the decrease in the number of faithful in places of worship show the extent of fear of the outbreak, which has permeated many aspects of life in the beaten Asian region. The virus has killed more than 1,500 people and infected more than 67,000, mostly in China, where several cities with a total population of more than 60 million people are quarantined in an unprecedented effort to try to contain the disease.

All deaths, with the exception of three, have occurred in China. Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines reported one fatality each.

In Japan, where Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are a tourist attraction, the sharp decline in the number of foreign visitors was palpable. In the normally popular Suzumushi temple, or the crickets, a sign said: “Due to the impact of COVID-19, there are no waiting times,” referring to the disease by the name given by the World Health Organization.

“We know that what the city is talking about is really about this virus and it is obvious that many are scared,” said priest Siegfred Arellano, of the Binondo church, in the Chinatown of the Philippine capital, Manila.

Attendance at the masses “has really declined,” Arellano added.

After consulting with health experts, the Philippine Episcopal Conference announced at the end of last month measures to fight the virus. The faithful were advised to avoid contact through the hands and to receive the Eucharist, which symbolizes the body of Jesus Christ, in the hand rather than in the mouth.

Holy water should be renewed more often in church piles, he added urging the placement of a protective cloth in the lattices that separate priests from the faithful in confessionals.

Crowds have also shrunk in the popular Wat Pho in Bangkok, a centuries-old temple complex known for its giant reclining Buddha. The temple is usually visited by thousands of tourists, many of them Chinese, during the high season from December to February. But many tourists and locals have avoided going since the beginning of the outbreak, said Phra Maha Udom Panyapho, a monk in charge of temple tourism.

A Protestant church in Seoul closed its doors and only offers homilies online after one of its faithful tested positive for the virus on January 30.

Other Protestant temples in the country sprayed their halls and rooms with disinfectants, canceled the Bible study programs for children and asked their followers to reduce their social life. Hundreds of South Korean Catholic churches stopped using piles of holy water, allowed the faithful to wear masks during mass and discouraged those who present with flu-like symptoms or come countries with confirmed cases to not attend.

Unlike public areas such as shopping centers, leisure centers or parks, asking devotees not to go to their places of prayer and imposing restrictions on sacred sites can be a very sensitive issue. Despite the risks, some see coming as a test of faith.

“The virus cannot diminish my faith,” said King Gilber, 55, with two children, who attended Mass in Binondo, Manila, with his family. “God is always there and will never abandon us.”

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The Associated Press journalist Aaron Favila and Joeal Calupitan in Manila, Philippines; Kiko Rosario and Preeyapa Khunsong in Bangkok; Ken Moritsugu and Joe McDonald in Beijing; Kim Tong-hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this office.

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The AP’s religious coverage receives support from Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for the content of the report.

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