Asian churches are altering their normal worship services and meeting schedules to take precaution against spreading the coronavirus, now known as Covid-19. Churches in China have been ordered closed since January 29th, while churches in other Asian countries are implementing precautionary measures in the hopes of containing the virus.
Singapore Has Many Confirmed Cases Linked to Churches
Singapore currently has 77 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the highest number of cases in any nation outside of China. Six of those patients are in critical condition. Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) announced on Friday that churches may continue to hold worship services, but must be diligent to take precautionary measures such as “temperature screening, reducing mingling, and suspending or deferring nonessential programmes.”
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However, some churches have stopped all services and meetings for two weeks due to confirmed cases of the virus among their parishioners. One such church is Grace Assembly of God, which represents the biggest cluster of cases in Singapore. The MOH ordered the entire staff of the church to observe a home quarantine order as they have all been in contact with an infected person. Senior Pastor Wilson Teo was admitted to Singapore’s National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) last week after contracting the virus. At least one other staff member was also admitted to the hospital for treatment.
Teo posted an update on Monday, telling concerned parishioners that his fever has subsided. Teo also mentioned one other staff member who was admitted to the hospital for treatment has been discharged already and that he is hoping to also be discharged soon. He also indicated his time in NCID has allowed for increased reflection:
My time in NCID has allowed me to wait upon God, while processing my emotions over all the events that took place recently. Although we may not fully understand why God allowed this to take place in Grace Assembly, I am confident that we will overcome the current situation with unity and courage, as our eyes are focused on Him and our hearts anchored upon His faithfulness.
Teo says he’s learned of a “ground-up prayer movement” initiated by parishioners. Groups of church members–”young and old”–are praying and fasting for the church and the nation. Teo also noted that a particular church group of young people ages 15 to 25 have “committed themselves to pray every night for the church.”
In addition to Grace Assembly, a much smaller church, the Life Church and Missions Singapore, has five confirmed cases linked to its congregation. The church has since stopped all services and also engaged a professional cleaning service to disinfect the premises using a hospital-grade disinfectant.
Speaking to the congregation via YouTube livestream, Rev. Vincent Choo informed those watching that the church unwittingly had two visitors from Wuhan, China (the epicenter of the virus) in their services three weeks ago. Those two visitors have since been confirmed as carrying the virus. The three other cases linked to the church represent church members, one of whom was in an intensive care unit of the hospital as of Sunday. Choo emphasized during his message that congregants should not blame the visitors for spreading the virus. “This is not the Chinese, the Wuhan people’s fault. It is also not the fault of those who came to sit among us. In times like these… we must pray for the masses, we must pray for Singapore. We must pray for the hospital staff, we must pray for China.”
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore, William Goh, announced on Friday that Mass would be suspended starting February 15th and lasting “until there is greater clarity on the way forward.” The Archdiocese has set up a broadcast on their YouTube channel for church members to watch the Mass at home and to receive the Eucharist “spiritually” instead of physically.
Mass Suspended in Hong Kong
Precautions in Hong Kong have steadily escalated. Initially, Cardinal John Hon Tong of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong approved the option of watching Mass online (an activity which is only allowed in extreme situations). The Catholic Church also asked those who would be attending in person to wear masks. Singing was avoided–with the exception of short hymns–due to the fact that the virus is spread through respiratory droplets. However, Tong has since announced Mass will be suspended for two weeks, from February 15th through the 28th. Even the Ash Wednesday service, which marks the beginning of Lent, on February 26th has been cancelled.
During these two weeks, the Hong Kong Diocese will provide a live-stream Mass. Additionally, churches will remain open on Sundays and allow those wishing to pray to visit. However, as the Diocese is trying to prevent groups from gathering during this time, no organized gatherings will be happening for two weeks’ time. Tong admonished people not to panic:
At this difficult time, everyone should not panic. We must deepen our trust in God and implement our Christian love for our neighbors and all people. In addition to fulfilling our Mass obligation by participating in the Mass online, receiving Holy Communion spiritually, meditating on the Scriptures, or saying the Rosary, at home we can care more for the health of our family, especially the elderly and the children. In the community, we can help one another, share anti-epidemic materials, live the Gospel virtues of faith, hope and love, and pray for each other.
Avoiding Contact in the Philippines
According to the Associated Press, leaders of the Catholic Church in the Philippines have asked those attending Mass to avoid hand contact and to receive the Eucharist in the hand instead of the mouth, which is customary. Services have not been suspended in the Philippines, which has only seen three cases of the virus so far.
Pray for Those Affected During Lent
Gospel for Asia, a Christian nonprofit organization, has called upon Christians around the world to spend time this Lent season praying for those affected by Covid-19.
Speaking to Vatican News, French missionary Father Nicolas de Francqueville, who is currently serving in Hong Kong, said although it is a trial, the virus represents an opportunity for the church:
So I hope that in this dangerous time of the virus it can also be an opportunity for Christians, and for everyone, to maybe show more solidarity, to slow down their lives which are usually so busy, so that maybe people can be more with their families, have more time to pray, to reflect on the sense of their lives, perhaps spend more time doing other things…in this crisis we do not only think about danger and fear, but that we may also trust in the Lord: may it become an opportunity to trust in the Lord and continue to love, as Christ asks us to do.