Virus vigilance marks Ash Wednesday

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    MANILA/HANOI — Worshippers in the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines tried to avoid brushing against fellow devotees and church workers during Ash Wednesday ceremonies, while in neighboring Vietnam the faithful wore masks to keep safe from a spreading coronavirus.

    Religious congregations in countries such as Singapore and South Korea have played a role in the spread of the disease, awakening authorities to the risk of contagion during religious services in crowded or confined spaces.

    Holy water fonts in churches in Manila were sealed or left empty, devotees avoided holding hands, and priests in some churches sprinkled black ash on people’s heads instead of tracing it into a cross on foreheads.

    “Nothing will hinder us from going to church, even if there’s a virus,” said housewife Jubeth Lupac, 48, after attending a mass on Wednesday in Manila to mark the beginning of the Christian season of Lent.

    “We just have to be careful.”

    The virus has infected 80,000 people and killed close to 2,700 in China since it emerged in the central city of Wuhan late last year, causing global anxiety and economic shocks.

    Priests in the Philippines, which accounts for more than half of Asia’s roughly 148 million Roman Catholics, offered verbal blessings instead of touches or handshakes, praying for sufferers to be healed and a halt in the spread of the virus.

    “The Catholic church is in line with the government in being cautious,” said Eric Mojica, a lay minister. Notices reminded worshippers of precautionary measures adopted by churches.

    Catholics make up about 80% of a population of more than 100 million in the Philippines.

    At the end of services, church workers sprinkled holy water on the devout, who wore masks or covered their mouths with cloths, and used towels to dab their faces or touch religious items.

    In Hanoi, many worshippers wore protective masks, but most took them off during the ceremony.

    “We pray daily for the disease infection to be over soon,” said a 48-year-old businesswoman, Mary Hoan, who prayed at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the Vietnamese capital.

    Vietnam, with 16 virus infections, has the largest number of Catholics in Southeast Asia after the Philippines, which has had one virus death, the first outside China, among a total of three infections in Chinese tourists. – Reuters