Covid-19: Some religious bodies cancel activities while others ramp up cleaning

Covid-19: Some religious bodies cancel activities while others ramp up cleaning
Archdiocesan Catholic Council for Interreligious Dialogue - ACCIRD/Facebook

SINGAPORE — Some temples and churches are scaling back or scrapping completely regular religious services and urging followers to watch their services online instead following two Covid-19 clusters identified at churches.  Other religious organisations such as Buddhist and Sikh temples are stopping short of scrapping regular services but choosing to implement more stringent precautionary measures at places of worship — urging those who are unwell to stay at home, as well as to ramp up cleaning of facilities and common areas. 

On Friday (Feb 14), the Catholic Church in Singapore announced that it will suspend all public Masses indefinitely due to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak. The heightened measures come as several confirmed cases of Covid-19 were linked to churches in the past two weeks — the Grace Assembly of God church and the Life Church and Missions Singapore. 

Both churches have stopped all meetings. One of the latest confirmed patients had also attended Mass at the Catholic Church of Christ the King in Ang Mo Kio, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said on Friday.  

While announcing the suspension of Mass in a pastoral letter signed by Archbishop William Goh, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore said that temperature-taking “is not a foolproof screening tool” because persons who are asymptomatic can also be carriers of the infection. At least four churches which have no confirmed cases of Covid-19 among its congregants are also ceasing public services and stopping large-scale religious events. On Saturday, senior pastors of megachurch Faith Community Baptist Church said that the church will temporarily suspend all on-site services this weekend because “the spike in the number of confirmed cases this past week in various places such as Marina Bay Financial Centre and Grace Assembly of God got our attention”.  

City Harvest Church said on Thursday that it will suspend services at Suntec City until the end of the month and urged their members to stay at home and watch online sermons. The church management said: “This is not an easy decision for us to make... But our congregation is not small, and we have members young and old. As leaders, we feel strongly that we must do what we can to protect our flock, as the risk of infection is relatively high right now.” The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown will also stream its ceremonies live, though it will still provide blessings to people who visit the temple. This move arose from the Government’s advice to reduce large group communal activities and mass gatherings, the temple said in a notice to devotees. Several religious activities across the island that involve crowds have already been postponed or cancelled.  

For example, the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho temple informed devotees that its annual hongbao-giving event originally slated for Feb 19 has been cancelled “to avoid putting devotees at risk”, while the Singapore Buddhist Federation has cancelled its Sunday school as well as a graduation ceremony for its adult dharma class on Feb 29.  The Sikh community has indefinitely postponed its four-day Khalsa Week celebration that was meant to be held in March, as well as other sports and dinner events. The decision on how to proceed during this period was discussed with the authorities, a spokesperson from the Sikh Advisory Board said. He said: “The religious leaders had met with the authorities and felt that as places of faith, we want to make sure that the people’s confidence remains intact and that people can still go to their places of worship." 

TODAY understands that the authorities, including the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, had met a resource group consisting of various religious leaders on Thursday to discuss the Covid-19 situation, as well as to share the best practices each community is adopting to tackle the spread of the coronavirus. On Friday, Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong and Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, met with church leaders to provide guidance on precautionary measures that churches can take, the MOH said. “MOH advises that worship services may continue, but with appropriate precautionary measures. As churches are places where large numbers of congregants come together to worship, it is important to put in place precautionary measures and emphasise personal hygiene practices to reduce the risk of transmission,” the ministry said in a statement.  

Since the national disaster outbreak response system condition was raised to orange last week, various places of worship have put in place surveillance measures to prevent those who are unwell from turning up at worship assemblies.  Among the measures are temperature-taking stations that screen people heading in and those with high body temperatures will be asked to go home and to seek medical attention. There is also more frequent cleaning of common areas within various places of worship. For example, megachurch New Creation Church has deployed state-of-the-art thermal scanners similar to those used by Changi Airport and hospitals across Singapore, provided hand sanitisers, and enhanced sanitisation of high-contact places such as common areas, toilets, and lifts. At Hindu temples, many handwashing points are already provided, since it is a Hindu practice for devotees to wash their hands and feet before entering any temple, the Hindu Endowments Board said. “Additionally, handwashing is a general routine in Hindu temples, as devotees receive blessed food in their hands,” it said in a statement. While some places of worship may have limited resources — not all can afford to deploy infrared cameras for temperature screening — religious bodies are helping to coordinate the effort as well. 

For instance, the Sikh Welfare Council acquired 6,000 surgical masks to be distributed to staff members at Sikh temples, or gurdwaras. “So our main agenda is to be ‘business as usual’, for prayer sessions to proceed as usual but with more precautions such as temperature-taking, ensuring good hygiene and to provide for contact-tracing when necessary,” a representative from the Sikh Advisory Board said. To keep up their usual tasks, several Christian and Buddhist groups have recorded their services and rituals for online streaming purposes, and mosques are also encouraged to do the same by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).  “Islam excuses those who are unwell from attending congregational prayers, including Friday prayers,” Muis said in an advisory to the Islamic faith. When asked if mosques will close their doors due to Covid-19, Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, Deputy Mufti of Singapore, said that the religious guidance should evolve with the circumstances. He gave the example of the salam — an established cultural practice and handshake etiquette in which a younger person greets an older person by kissing their hand and bringing their palm to their chest. 

Muslims understand that there is a need to set aside this practice in order to ensure that they do not transmit the virus, Dr Nazirudin said during a prayer session on Friday. “Accordingly, our religious guidance for the community will evolve together with the situation. What matters most for us thus far is guiding the community to ensure that they remain safe, and they also contribute to the safety of others,” he said. The National Council of Churches of Singapore has advised that churches should continue all worship services while adopting control measures issued by the Government, it said last week. Its president, Bishop Terry Kee, said that worship services should not be cancelled unless “absolutely necessary”.  

He also urged believers not to compare the actions taken by some churches to close some services or programmes since they may have different considerations, he told Christian publication Salt and Light. Several devotees and parishioners who were at temples and churches on Saturday told TODAY that while services are continuing, many large-scale gatherings have been cancelled and the added precautionary measures have been reassuring. Mr Brian Thomas, who works as a logistics driver, said that although the number of patients who contracted Covid-19 and were religious congregants is “alarming”, he is confident in the increased hygiene and screening measures that his church leaders have taken. “It will be a knee-jerk reaction to stop all church sessions across the country (at this point). Without the help of religion in our lives to calm people, I think it could lead to even more panic,” Mr Thomas, who goes to a church in the Bugis area, said.  


First Published on15 FEBRUARY, 2020 UPDATED 16 FEBRUARY, 2020 by NG JUN SEN

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