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Major churches in HK suspend mass services amid coronavirus outbreak

14 February 2020


By Daisy CL Mandap

Cardinal Tong making the annoucement via a video message

In unprecedented moves, two major churches in Hong Kong have suspended all public mass or worship services for the next two weeks, in an effort to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, now officially known as Covid-19.

The landmark step was taken as China reported nearly 15,000 new confirmed cases and 254 new deaths on Wednesday, Feb 12, following a change in its detection criteria. Hong Kong has responded to the news by extending school closures until Mar 16, and keeping civil servants at home for another week.


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The Catholic Church was the first to make the move, announced through a video message by a masked John Cardinal Tong, apostolic administrator of the Diocese, which was posted earlier today, Feb. 13.

“The next two weeks will be a crucial time to suppress the epidemic. To avoid gatherings, the Diocese has decided to suspend all the public Masses on Sundays and weekdays for two weeks, including the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday, from the fifteenth to the twenty-eighth of February,” said Cardinal Tong.

“Some Church members may be disappointed. However, I hope that everyone can understand this is not an easy decision.”

Cardinal Tong called on the public not to panic, and said people should care more for their family’s health, and share anti-epidemic materials with others.
 
The notice from the House of Bishops of the Anglican-Episcopal Church
Shortly afterwards, another major religious group, the Anglican-Episcopal Church, to which the Philippine Independent Church belongs, made a similar announcement.

A notice from the House of Bishops said all group activities and public worship services will be suspended from Sunday, Feb 15 to Saturday, Feb. 29, in the dioceses of  Hong Kong island, Eastern and Western Kowloon.


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Churches may be opened only during set hours for “private prayers and silent meditation.”

The notice said the decision was made at the advice of the Government, which has constantly reminded residents to stay at home as much as possible and minimize social contacts and gatherings.

“Churches may make live broadcast of their services or message sharing through the internet,” said the notice. “Details will be announced on the websites and/or social media pages of the Province and of the parishes and mission churches involved.”

Smaller church organizations, including those belonging to the Global Ministers Association, a group made up of Filipino Christian churches, said they will still have to talk about whether they should follow suit.
 
Mass booklets have disappeared from church pews a week before mass services were suspended
This is the first time that both religious groups will be closing their churches’ doors to worshippers for an extended period. Not even at the height of Sars or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed 299 people in Hong Kong 17 years ago, has such a step been taken.

But weeks before, the Catholic church had already started taking measures to help contain the spread of Covid -19 The holy water used by worshippers to dip their fingers into on entering the church had disappeared. Those taking communion were told that they should get the host with their hands and not directly through the mouth. And just last Sunday, all mass booklets which could possibly be sprayed with droplets from infected people, were taken from the pews.


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In at least one church in Hong Kong island, the priest who said mass reportedly wore a face mask throughout the service.

The coronavirus, which was first detected last December in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has spread to at least 24 countries, and infected more than 60,000 people worldwide, with tens of thousands more suspected cases. More than 1,000 people have already died from it.

Chinese officials say the situation in Wuhan remains uncertain, as the scale of the contagion has not been accurately estimated.

This has led Chinese health experts to include the number of clinically diagnosed cases to the number of confirmed cases, saying this could help patients receive timely treatment. But it also resulted in a record number of diagnosed cases and fatalities in one day.
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