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Covid claims centuries-old Indonesian Holy Week festival

Semana Santa celebration on Flores is called off for a second straight year because of the pandemic

Covid claims centuries-old Indonesian Holy Week festival

Each Good Friday, the statue of Baby Jesus is placed on a wooden boat to be taken to meet Mother Mary as part of the Semana Santa festival in Larantuka, Indonesia. (Photo: Melkhior Koli Baran)

A centuries-old Indonesian Holy Week celebration will not be observed for the second year in a row due to the coronavirus still gripping the country. 

Bishop Fransiskus Kopong Kung of Larantuka said the decision not to celebrate the 500-year-old Semana Santa festival in the city on Catholic-majority Flores island was reached during a recent meeting of priests, lay groups, local government officials and health workers.

“With Covid-19 cases continuing to rise, this year’s event is not feasible,” Bishop Kung told UCA News.

The celebration usually attracts more than 10,000 pilgrims every year from all over Indonesia and abroad. Last year the festival was canceled despite no cases being reported in the region. 

This year the reason to cancel was much more compelling as East Nusa Tenggara province has recorded more than 3,100 coronavirus cases, although only a few have been reported in East Flores district where Larantuka is.

On Maundy Thursday, pilgrims visit three different chapels, where statues of Tuan Ma (Blessed Mother), Tuan Meninu (Baby Jesus) and Tuan Anna (Jesus) are housed.

The celebration peaks on Good Friday when the Baby Jesus statue is taken via boat to meet the Blessed Mother in her chapel. Hundreds of pilgrims jump in a flotilla of boats and follow. 

This year’s Holy Week runs from March 29 to April 4 and many churches will likely continue celebrating Mass virtually due to health restrictions.

Bishop Kung said he understood people would be frustrated by the cancellation but urged people to understand why, saying it was the same for Catholics across the globe.

He said he will issue a pastoral letter to discourage people from coming to Larantuka.

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The prelate said he had also canceled other activities during Holy Week in churches and each Mass will be followed virtually by Catholics from their homes.

“Let the pandemic encourage us to be steadfast in our faith,” he said. 

Vincentius Sabon from Larantuka said he was disappointed but agreed with the move to cancel. “It’s sad because the festival unites Catholics from everywhere,” he told UCA News.  

He said it is always a happy moment when meeting Catholics from elsewhere during the festival. “I am proud of the tradition ... I just hope the virus ends soon.” 

Similar sentiments were expressed by Maria Handayani from Surabaya, East Java, who has attended the festival several times.

“There is only one such festival in Indonesia. But we should respect the bishop's decision because it is important for us to defeat the pandemic.”

As of Jan. 18, Indonesia had recorded 917,015 Covid-19 cases and 26,282 deaths.

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