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India

Indian state rejects cardinal's appeal to open churches  

Kerala government also refused requests from Hindu and Muslim groups to open their places of worship

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Indian state rejects cardinal's appeal to open churches   

An Indian priest delivers his sermon during a special Mass at Sister Alphonsa's Church in Mala in the southern state of Kerala on Oct. 11, 2008. All public Masses have been banned in India since March 25. (Photo: Raveendran/AFP)

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The communist-led government in southern India's Kerala state has turned down appeals from religious leaders, including Catholics, to reopen worship places that have been closed for nearly two months following the Covid-19 lockdown.

Cardinal George Alancherry, head of the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Catholic Church based in the state, wrote to Chief Minister Pinaray Vijayan seeking the state’s permission to open worship places of all religions.

Vijayan told media on May 18 that it was not possible to open worship places where people gather because of the danger of the coronavirus spreading.

“We have to be extremely cautious” as more migrants are returning to the state from areas that are badly affected by the virus, he said.

Vijayan appealed to people of every religion “to bear with the restrictions” as the federal government’s directive has banned gatherings in all places of worship throughout the country.

On March 24, India's federal government announced a nationwide lockdown that included a blanket ban on public activities including gatherings in religious places such as temples, mosques and churches.

Churches have suspended public Masses as the government extended the lockdown four times. The last extension was on May 18 with some relaxations to business houses and vehicular movements.

However, gatherings of any sort continue to be banned as Covid-19 cases spiral with daily reports of thousands of cases. India had reported about 100,000 cases and more than 3,300 deaths as of May 20.

A leading body of Muslims, the All India Imam Council, also approached the government. The Travancore Devaswom Board, which runs 2,000-odd Hindu temples in southern and central Kerala, was among others who sought a relaxation in lockdown rules to allow religious worship.

Cardinal Alencherry called for a "reasonable relaxation" of restrictions at worship places of all religions in his letter to Vijayan on May 15.

“If the lockdown continues in the same way [strictly], it will lead to mental stress among the people,” the cardinal said, adding that repercussions “will be beyond our control.”

He wanted the state to use its discretionary powers to relax the norms and allow the opening of worship places of all religions “subject to reasonable restrictions.”

Kerala's government currently allows five people to gather in churches for services or other sacramental liturgies subject to social distancing. It also allows 20 persons to attend funerals.

Cardinal Alencherry wanted to increase the number of church participants to 50 persons, saying it was “essential for faithful to attend religious worship to get rid of their stress and achieve internal peace through religious worship.”

The cardinal’s letter was necessary following frequent requests from Catholics, said Father Abraham Kavilpurayidam, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church.

“Our bishops and priests continue to enquire about the possible date to start worship in churches,” he told UCA News on May 20.

Most faithful are joining online Masses, adoration and other prayers, but still they want to attend church services, he said.

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