Outbreak Affects Worship Across Asia

Many churches close, others advise faithful to avoid contact with others
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 16, 2020 9:40 AM CST
Virus Changes Worship in Asia
In this Feb. 8, 2020, photo, a Hindu devotee smiles as she lowers down her face mask during a procession at the Thaipusam festival at Batu Caves in Selangor, Malaysia. Tens of thousands of ethnic Hindus, meanwhile, gathered last weekend to celebrate the annual festival, undeterred by the outbreak of...   (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

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, the AP reports, 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 and urged churchgoers to instead watch them online. Buddhist temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques have been ordered closed in mainland China, where the new coronavirus strain was first detected in the central city of Wuhan. Mosques have canceled weekly Friday prayers under an order to avoid "collective religious activities." Religious leaders should encourage Muslims to "trust the party" and avoid crowds, the Communist Party-controlled body that oversees China's authorized mosques said.

The restrictions and dwindling crowds in diverse places of worship underscore the extent of the scare. In Japan, there's been a sharp drop in tourists at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. "It’s obvious that many are scared,” said a priest in Manila. Mass attendance, he said, "has really dropped." After consulting experts, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines advised avoiding hand contact at church. They urged replacing holy water more often in churches and putting a protective cloth on the grills in confessional boxes. Crowds 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 and switched entirely to online services after one of its followers tested positive for the virus. Some of the faithful consider going to religious gatherings during the outbreak a test of faith. "The virus can’t dampen my faith," said a churchgoer in Manila. The Indonesian health minister said, "The key is to keep praying and maintain your immunity."

(Read more coronavirus stories.)

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