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Myanmar’s Churches Close, Scale Back Easter Services to Prevent Coronavirus

By Zarni Mann 18 March 2020

MANDALAY—In line with the government’s instructions that summer schools, cinemas and pagoda festivals should be closed or canceled to prevent the spread of coronavirus, churches in Myanmar have announced closures and plans to scale back Easter celebrations and worship services.

A numbers of churches in Yangon announced that regular services had been canceled, or that they would be closed till the end of April, while dozens limited the number of devotees allowed in at one time.

Following the World Health Organization (WHO)’s declaration last week that the coronavirus outbreak is a pandemic, Myanmar’s Ministry of Health and Sports issued instructions on March 13 directing people to avoid mass gatherings until April 30.

On Monday, the government ordered the closure of cinemas and nursery schools across the country as a precautionary measure to control the spread of coronavirus, although there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country.

The global death toll from the coronavirus outbreak had topped 7,965 as of Wednesday morning. The virus has spread to 165 countries with 198,241 confirmed cases.

The Emmanuel Church in downtown Yangon announced on Sunday that all of its devotion sessions, including summer youth camp and summer Bible classes, will be suspended till the end of April due to COVID-19.

The Kachin Baptist Church in Yangon also announced the suspension of regular devotional services, although services for Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday—two important days in the Christian calendar—will be held with restrictions.

Palm Sunday and Easter Sundays commemorate, respectively, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and his resurrection. They are usually celebrated with special prayer services attended by large numbers of devotees. This year, Palm Sunday falls on April 5 and Easter Sunday on April 12.

In an announcement on Tuesday, the Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC) ordered all Baptist Churches to follow the instructions of the government and the Ministry of Health, to limit the number of devotees and not to hold any services likely to draw mass attendance until April 30.

The MBC also instructed the churches to suspend training sessions and meetings with large numbers of participants, to strictly implement preventive measures announced by the Ministry of Health, and to monitor coronavirus-related news and any further notices or instructions.

“We instructed all of the Kachin churches in accordance with the instructions from the Myanmar Baptist Convention to follow all prevention measures. Most of the churches in Yangon are closed. Some churches will hold limited Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday services,” Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson, chairman of the Kachin Baptist Convention, told The Irrawaddy.

Dr. Samson said the Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC) also instructed devotees who are sick to avoid church and to seek medical attention.

“The MBC instructed us [churches and all devotees] to follow every procedure announced by the government and the Ministry of Health, and to use proper hygiene and disinfecting procedures before entering churches and their homes. We are going to limit the number of guests at the services such as funerals and weddings, too,” he explained.

“Churches in small towns with few churchgoers are not subject to complete closures yet. However, they are on alert pending updates on the coronavirus situation in the country and will follow all instructions from the government,” he added.

All churches are instructing parishioners to stay home if they are sick, and to clean their hands with sanitizer before entering churches and before going back to their homes.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Myanmar (CBCM) also announced on Tuesday that anyone with flu-like symptoms is advised to stay home and not attend church. Easter midnight mass has been canceled.

“The Easter vigil will be celebrated as early as possible on Holy Sunday at around 5-7 p.m. There will not be a midnight mass,” the CBCM said.

The CBCM also instructed followers not to shake hands, not to kiss the cross on Good Friday, not to kiss or touch sacred images and statues, to use hand sanitizer and wear face masks before entering churches, to wear protective clothing before confession, to cancel meetings, gatherings, fellowship and related events, and to postpone ordinations, Jubilees and Feasts.

Christian societies will also limit attendance at funerals to immediate family members and close friends.

The societies have also been warned not to overreact or panic over coronavirus-related news and not to believe rumors.

Meanwhile, Islamic societies have also instructed Muslims to stay home if they feel sick and to practice good health and hygiene to control the spread of the virus.

“We instructed all the mosques to clean the mosques and to keep hand sanitizer at the entrances. We also instructed people to limit the numbers [of attendees at mosques] and instructed sick people not to attend mosques, or go anywhere else, and to stay at home,” said U Wunna Shwe, secretary general of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council, Myanmar.

U Wunna Shwe said Islamic schools are currently not in session, but the council is monitoring the situation and awaiting further notices from the government and the Ministry of Health.

“We are on alert for further instructions and notices and have instructed all mosques and religious leaders to follow all instructions of the government and Ministry of Health to tackle the coronavirus,” he added.

There are about 1.6 million Baptists and over 500,000 Catholics in Myanmar. The Muslim population is about 2.2 million.

Meanwhile, Thingyan, the traditional Burmese New Year festival, has been canceled across the country, to restrict mass gatherings. Pagoda festivals, including the Shwe Set Taw Pagoda festival in Magwe Division—one of the country’s most famous pagoda festivals, which draws thousands of pilgrims from across the country every year—were also canceled last week.

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