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Church attendance also down in Asia

In a popular Catholic church in the Philippines, nearly half of the pews were empty for Sunday Mass. The few hundred worshipers who showed up were asked to refrain from shaking others’ hands or holding them during prayers to prevent the spread of the virus that started in China.

In Hong Kong, Cardinal John Hon Tong, wearing a mask, announced the suspension of public Masses for two weeks.

Buddhist temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques have been ordered closed since January 29 in mainland China, where the new coronavirus strain was first detected in the central city of Wuhan. Mosques have canceled weekly Friday prayers since January under an order to avoid “collective religious activities.”

The restrictions and dwindling crowds in religiously diverse places of worship underscore the extent of the scare over the outbreak that has permeated many aspects of life in the hard-hit Asian region. The death toll jumped to 1,665 in mainland China on Sunday after 142 more people died from the virus. More than 68,000 people have now been infected — but the number of new cases of the coronavirus disease 2019 strain continued to decline.

In Japan, where Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are tourist destinations, a sharp decline in the number of foreign visitors has been a palpable setback.

“We assimilate with parishioners and many other people. We know that the talk of the town is really this virus and it’s obvious that many are scared,” said the Rev. Siegfred Arellano, a priest at the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz or Binondo Church in Manila.

Attendance at Masses, Arellano added, “has really dropped.”

After consulting health experts, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines announced steps late last month to fight the virus. Churchgoers were advised to avoid hand contact and receive the Eucharist, which symbolizes the body of Jesus Christ, in the hand instead of the mouth.

In Hong Kong, Tong initially approved precautions that included a choice for churchgoers to watch Sunday Mass online. Those who opted to go to churches were asked to wear masks and told that “singing is suspended,” except for short hymns like “Allelulia.” The new virus is spread through respiratory droplets, according to health officials.

Tong later announced the two-week suspension of Masses, saying the move was crucial to suppressing the outbreak, and asked Hong Kong’s 400,000-strong Catholic community not to panic.

Masses in Singapore’s Catholic churches have also been suspended indefinitely starting Saturday to contain the spread of the virus. The city-state has reported that 67 people have been infected, including a senior pastor and several members of the Grace Assembly of God church, which has shut down two premises and quarantined all staff.

Crowds also have thinned at Bangkok’s popular Wat Pho, a centuries-old Buddhist temple complex known for its giant reclining Buddha.

A Protestant church in Seoul shut its doors and switched entirely to online worship services after one of its followers tested positive for the virus on January 30.

Other Protestant churches in South Korea have sprayed their halls and rooms with disinfectant, canceled children’s Bible school programs and asked followers to minimize socializing. Hundreds of Catholic churches in the country have halted the use of holy water stoups, allowed churchgoers to wear masks during Masses and discouraged those with flu-like symptoms or those who came from countries with confirmed cases of infection from attending.

“The virus can’t dampen my faith,” said Rey Gilber, a 55-year-old father of two, who went to Mass at the Binondo Church with his family. “God is always there and won’t abandon us.”

Without a cure in sight, many Asians have turned to faith.

Religious leaders across Asia have issued public prayers for the sick to recover, the contagion to stop and governments and international health agencies to find a cure.


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