Holy Rosary Church, Bangladesh’s largest Catholic parish church, in central Dhaka. Several dioceses have banned public liturgies to contain the outbreak of coronavirus in the country. (Photo: Chandan Robert Rebeiro)
Several Catholic dioceses in Bangladesh have decided to suspend liturgies in churches indefinitely and warned the faithful against religious gatherings as cases of the deadly Covid-19 disease surge.
The Muslim-majority nation, which has about eight million people working abroad, has officially recorded 27 coronavirus cases, with five recovered patients and two deaths since the first three detections on March 8, according to the state-run Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research.
The government on March 16 announced the closure of all education institutes from March 17-31 and on March 22 suspended the Higher Secondary Certificate examination, which was supposed to be start on April 1. More than a million students were expected to take the month-long exams.
Authorities also put Shibchar subdistrict of Madaripur district on an emergency lockdown on March 19, largely because the area has seen hundreds of overseas workers return home in recent weeks.
On the same day, the government imposed a restriction on all political, social, cultural and religious gatherings to contain the virus. The order, however, didn’t specifically mention prayers in worship places such as mosques, temples or churches.
Churches ban public gatherings
Five out of eight Catholic archdioceses and dioceses — Chittagong, Rajshahi, Khulna, Mymensingh and Dinajpur — have put an indefinite ban on public participation in liturgies in churches.
Chittagong Archdiocese in southeastern Bangladesh announced on March 21 that churches will no longer hold any public liturgies including Sunday Mass to stop spreading Covid-19. This measure will be effective until the next notice.
Archbishop Moses Costa of Chittagong announced that as an emergency measure the official Facebook page of the archdiocese would broadcast online Sunday Masses starting March 22 and asked the faithful to join live Masses from home.
The first online Mass saw about 1,100 people join from home and abroad, with many giving positive feedback.
Online Masses are an emergency measure and cannot continue during ordinary times, said Manik D’Costa, pastoral coordinator of Chittagong Archdiocese.
“We should not continue this in an ordinary situation. People should come to church and the priests should go to the aged and sick with communion,” D’Costa said.
Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi issued a message to all priests urging them to announce a similar ban on public liturgies in churches until further notice.
“Arrange for sessions of forgiveness instead of individual confessions,” Bishop Rozario said on March 21.
Bishop James Romen Boiragi of Khulna issued a notice on March 22 that stated all public liturgies and religious gatherings in churches are banned from March 24 until further notice.
However, Dhaka Archdiocese, which covers capital city Dhaka and adjacent districts, has not banned public participation in church liturgies but made it optional.
Church authorities put a ban on various village-based liturgical and spiritual programs except Mass during the Lenten season.
Holy Rosary Church, the country’s largest Catholic church with more than 15,000 resident and migrant Catholics in central Dhaka, had an extremely low turnout for Sunday Mass on March 22.
It usually has 1,500 to 2,000 faithful during each of five Sunday Masses, but on the day only 150-200 attended, a Catholic source estimated.
However, the church issued a notice with several guidelines and precautions.
“The church will be open as usual, and priests will continue to offer Masses including on Sundays. Participation of faithful is an individual decision,” the notice read.
The notice urged people not to attend Mass wearing face masks or if they have been suffering from a cold, fever and coughing.
Some Catholics expressed dismay over Dhaka Archdiocese’s decision and called for an immediate ban on public gatherings in churches.
“Unbelievable! When the whole world is in home isolation, our clergy are behaving like Pharisees. They cannot protect themselves and cannot help people stay healthy. Are they not aware of the world situation now? It is a time to put actions over religiosity. Even the pope has closed down churches in the Vatican,” Suchitra Gomes wrote on Facebook on March 22.
“As we don’t know who is carrying the virus and even the infected person does not know, so anyone going to a church is at risk. We must stop community transmission and maintain social distancing. Churches must be locked down for 2-3 weeks,” wrote Angela Uma Biswas.