Church leaders in India's Maharashtra state have welcomed a government decision to reopen religious worship places seven months after shutting them down as a means to check the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
State chief minister Uddhav Thackeray announced Nov. 15 that all places of worship could start functioning from Nov. 16 subject to strict protocols to ensure that these places do not become centers spreading the pandemic.
Catholic Church leaders said they have been waiting for the announcement.
"I was impatiently looking for this day," exclaimed Archbishop Felix Antony Machado of Vasai.
Thackeray said the decision comes as the number of new pandemic cases falls in the state. But people should not become complacent and take care of themselves while visiting religious places, he said.
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Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Bombay based in the state capital, also welcomed the government decision. He also cautioned people against rushing to churches for community prayers.
Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India's biggest city with some 20 million people, used to be a Covid-19 hotspot.
"The cardinal has instructed parish priests in the archdiocese to keep the churches open for individual prayers for three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening," said Father Nigel Barrett, the cardinal's spokesperson.
However, the government said religious places should open only if they are outside Covid-19 containment zones.
"The timings will be decided by the local authorities. Only asymptomatic people will be allowed inside places of worship. The devotees will be allowed to enter places of worship in a staggered manner," the announcement said
Wearing a face mask is mandatory and visitors are required to follow social distancing norms strictly, it said. Shoes must be kept outside the premises. All visitors should be scanned for body temperature and given facilities for hand washing or sanitizing.
The government has also prohibited devotees from touching statues, holy books and idols, among other religious articles. Large gatherings also are banned.
"We are delighted that now we can pray in our churches in a group and individually. However, we don't want to risk the life of people. Therefore, the cardinal has instructed to not start community prayers instantly in churches," Father Barrett told UCA News on Nov. 16
He said they plan to keep churches open for the public to visit for limited hours in the morning and evening. Later officials will take stock of the situation and formulate Covid-19 protocols to help people attend community prayers including Eucharistic celebrations, Father Barrett said.
"As the Covid-19 threat is very much alive, we don't want to do anything that can threaten the safety and security of our people and others around us," the priest asserted.
Archbishop Machado, the secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, told UCA News on Nov. 16 that he has been "praying for this day."
"Now we will have to put in place Covid-19 protocols to ensure that our places of worship do not spread the pandemic as we have been exemplary in the fight against the Covid-19 virus in the state," Archbishop Machado said.
"The government has trusted us in allowing to open religious places, and now it is our responsibility that we don't spread it."
He plans to resume church programs as soon as possible after formulating protocols in line with government guidelines.
The reopening comes amid criticism that the Maharashtra government did not open religious places despite the federal government starting the unlocking process in June. Several states have also allowed the opening of religious places since August, but Maharashtra did not.
On Oct. 13, the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the federal government, organized a massive protest calling for opening places of worship, violating prohibitory orders and Covid-19 protocols.
The Covid-19 lockdown was imposed in the country on March 24. The unlocking process began three months later, easing restrictions on public movement despite a rise in the number of Covid-19 cases.
With cases spiraling in several cities of Maharashtra, the state recorded some 24,000 new cases daily in mid-September. However, cases began to decline by September end. It recorded only 5,000 cases by October end and came down to some 2,500 cases by Nov. 15.
India recorded 30,548 new cases of Covid-19 on Nov. 15, the lowest single-day spike in cases since July 14.
The country has recorded more than 8.8 million cases with 130,000 death from the pandemic.