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Can a pandemic challenge God himself?

As Pakistan's Punjab province suspends church gatherings, one frustrated Catholic vents his feelings

Can a pandemic challenge God himself?

A Mass to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 2015 terrorist attack on two churches in the Youhanabad area of Lahore was canceled at St. John’s Catholic Church. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)

Yasir Javed had never missed Sunday Mass in more than a decade. That was until Punjab’s government suspended church gatherings amid a rise in coronavirus cases in Pakistan.

“I am saddened. Can someone get infection in the House of God, whether it is a church, mosque or temple? Is a virus powerful enough to affect worshipers inside holy premises? Can a pandemic challenge God himself?” he asked in a Facebook video.

“The authorities should think about their decision. We spent last week in our cathedral praying the rosary to get rid of the virus. Kindly do not stop us from entering the House of God."

Javed, the vice-president of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore, recorded his message in front of an empty church on March 15. He was among more than 1,000 who viewed an online Mass by a Capuchin priest in Lahore as the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Pakistan climbed to 53. By March 17, the number of infections had risen to 183.

Large religious gatherings have been canceled until April 5 in line with provincial government directives to slow the spread of Covid-19. Other measures include closure of all educational institutions and religious seminaries and prohibition of public gatherings and festivals. Pakistan Super League cricket matches are now being held in Lahore without spectators.

Christians are the largest non-Muslim minority in Punjab province, which comprises Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan dioceses.

A notification from one Lahore police station warned churches that action would be taken against them under the Punjab Security of Vulnerable Establishments Act if they failed to comply with the emergency rules. It added that churches could be sealed for non-compliance.

Another police station obtained surety bonds worth 500,000 rupees (US$3,160) from churches.

The ban on church gatherings came shortly after Prime Minister Imran Khan presided over the first meeting of the National Security Committee on Covid-19 with civilian and military leaders.

“I want to inform the nation I am personally overseeing measures to deal with Covid-19 and will address the nation soon. I would advise people to follow safety instructions issued by our govt. While there is a need for caution, there is no need for panic,” Khan tweeted on March 14.

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“We are alert to the dangers and have put in place sufficient protocols for the safety and health of our people.”

Church leaders back move

The canceled Masses included one on March 15 to mark the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack on two churches in the Youhanabad area of Lahore in 2015 when 15 people died in suicide bombings and more than 70 were wounded.

A poster carrying an image of the virus was pasted on the blue gate of St. John’s Catholic Church, one of the attacked sites. “The church will remain open for all faithful. Visit only for personal prayer,” it stated.

According to catechist Angelo Javed, more than 10,000 attend the “emotional anniversary” jointly organized by priests and pastors each year.

“Police refused to provide us with security for the gathering. We can never forget our departed siblings and stand in solidarity with their families. The Mass was postponed in obedience of the government but not due to fear of the virus,” he told UCA News. 

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore appreciated the government action in a press release.

“All educational and administrative institutes of the archdiocese will remain closed until April 5. All staff and students will stay in their houses. The public should take all preventive measures. Let us pray from God almighty that the citizens of our beloved country remain safe from this fatal epidemic,” he said.  

The archbishop had earlier dedicated the second week of Lent to scientists trying to find a cure for the virus.

Bishop Joseph Indrias Rehmat of Faisalabad also welcomed the government decision following an ecumenical emergency meeting.

Cardinal Joseph Coutts urged priests in Karachi Archdiocese to wear sanitary masks. “Ensure that all those who have to distribute Holy Communion wear a mask and clean their hands with sanitizing liquid,” he said in a virus alert on March 12.

“Anyone who has a fever, cough or any other symptoms of a cold/flu should be told to stay at home. If any such person comes to church, he should be politely told not to enter or should be provided with a sanitary mask.”

Meanwhile, Caritas Pakistan has initiated an awareness drive in seven dioceses. Following training at its national secretariat, a first session was held at St. Joseph Church in Karachi. Informative handouts were also distributed among attendees. 

“Precaution and public health will be focused more on our thematic areas including emergency. Volunteers are being trained to guide communities and avoid panic,” said Bishop Benny Travas of Multan, chairman of Caritas Pakistan.

Caritas Pakistan executive director Amjad Gulzar said masks will be provided in dioceses facing a shortage of personal protective equipment. The organization has already developed a three-month plan.

“Coordination meetings will be held with government departments. All dioceses are directed to develop information material for further awareness as the public has vague knowledge about how to deal with the pandemic. Dedicated pages are also being developed on our social media pages,” said Gulzar.

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