A Covid-19 notice at the house of Father Francis Gulzar, vicar general of Lahore Archdiocese. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)
Catholic activists in Pakistan are demanding the Punjab government lift its ban on Masses amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
“The faithful must not be deprived of the Eucharist. Where is our faith? Can’t we take precautions for the safety of the faithful? Is the closure of worship places a solution?” Jesuit Father Imran John asked.
“We can skip homilies and hymns. Churchgoers can be asked to wear masks and gloves. We should be allowed to minister Holy Communion at houses. People are visiting us, sharing their disappointment at the ban.”
The priest was referring to the ban on large religious gatherings by the provincial government to slow the spread of Covid-19 as the number of infections rose to 237 in Pakistan.
Punjab’s government imposed Section 144 prohibiting public gatherings and the hoarding of items like hand sanitizers and masks. Educational institutes, marriage halls and examinations have been canceled until April 5.
However, Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar on March 16 promised a delegation of religious scholars that the provincial government had no plans to close mosques. He said the government appreciated the religious scholars’ recommendations to keep Friday prayers short and announced restrictions on children and the elderly visiting mosques.
In his televised address to the nation on March 17, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan warned that the government feared the spread of coronavirus in the country. Everyone must avoid gatherings of more than 40 people, he said.
Meanwhile, Masses remain suspended in more than 60 churches in Punjab. Bishops in Punjab have welcomed the government’s decision. Karachi Archdiocese has urged the faithful to support the government.
“Cardinal Joseph Coutts together with his council decided to suspend all pubic Masses and services from March 17 for the next three weeks. Kindly cooperate with us. Continue to pray at home. Please pray for those affected by the coronavirus,” states a notice posted by St. Anthony’s Parish in Karachi.
The announcement was made following a meeting between Cardinal Coutts and Saeed Ghani, education minister of southern Sindh province.
Christian activists are using social media to condemn the discriminatory policy. “Why are churches the target when mosques are not closed in Punjab?” Khalid Shehzad, a Catholic human rights activist, asked in a Facebook post.
Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of Pakistan, also expressed disappointment.
“We are used to such norms. There is no competition in the matter of prayer but the government should educate all sections of society. We are coping with the crisis in our own way. Churches remain open for personal prayers. We have placed novena prayer pamphlets on church benches to facilitate visitors,” he said.