Coronavirus means Ash Wednesday restrictions for Asia’s Catholics – dpa international


Filipina churchgoers light candles in the grounds of St. John’s Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Catholics in Southeast Asia will have to do without one of their most recognizable motifs due to the coronavirus outbreak. On February 26, the Christian holy day of Ash Wednesday this year, Catholics in Malaysia and the Philippines will have dry ash sprinkled onto their heads instead of the usual smearing of a damp grey-black ash cross.

Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, stated that the measures were motivated by “our concern for the well-being of our brothers and sisters” and the taking of the “utmost care and efforts towards the prevention of the spread of COVID-19.”

The disease, caused by a new strain of coronavirus that has spread to around two dozen countries, has killed over 2,200 people, mostly in China, where the pandemic originated.

Announcing Malaysia’s Ash Wednesday restrictions, Valles’ counterpart Julian Leow Kim Bing offered prayers “for those who continue to put themselves in danger’s way” to tackle the virus.

Singaporean Catholics will have to do without their ashes as the church hierarchy there has suspended all public gatherings.

William Goh, the archbishop of Singapore, stated that churches will remain closed “until there is greater clarity on the way forward.” Priests in the city-state are celebrating closed-door Masses that Catholics can watch online.

While Singapore has 85 positive diagnoses for the novel coronavirus, all but five of Malaysia’s 22 cases have been deemed cured. The Philippines has three cases, including one death of a Chinese visitor.

The Philippines and East Timor are Asia’s only two Christian-majority countries, though China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam are home to substantial Catholic and Protestant norities.

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, a six-week period of fasting leading up to Easter. Many Christian denominations mark Ash Wednesday, though the daubing of an ash cross on foreheads, meant to signify repentance, is a largely Catholic tradition.

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