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Punjab government reopens churches

Denominations remain divided amid a spike in the Covid-19 death toll in Pakistan

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Punjab government reopens churches

People in need receive free food in Rawalpindi on May 17 during a distribution organized by a shop owner after the government eased the nationwide lockdown imposed as a preventive measure against Covid-19. (Photo: Farooq Naeem/AFP)

Churches are slowly reopening in Pakistan's Punjab province as part of a gradual easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions following a government announcement.

The Punjab government announced the reopening of shopping malls and the resumption of intercity transport from May 18 as a part of lifting the lockdown in phases. Congregational prayers had been suspended in the province since March 14 amid an outbreak with 40,151 confirmed cases and 873 deaths.

Punjab's Minister for Minority Affairs Ijaz Alam Augustine welcomed the move. Bishops must ensure the implementation of standard operating procedures (SOPs) issued by the government, he said, adding that strict security arrangements have been made in churches across the province. “No one can stop you from worshiping, but caution is the only solution to end this pandemic,” he said.

The Church of Pakistan has instructed parishes to continue online Sunday services to control attendances. Some 15 worshipers attended the Sunday service on May 17 at St. John's Church run by Raiwind Diocese's Church of Pakistan. Rev. Emmanuel Khokhar urged all to observe social distancing during the service in Lahore.

“The faithful were happy to pray in the House of God after two months and swarmed in excitement, especially because house visits were also stopped. We had to prohibit those without face masks. Only two people were allowed on each bench,” he told UCA News.

“30 will be allowed by the end of this month after we purchase temperature guns and install a walk-through disinfectant tunnel at the church entrance. Resumption of 24-hour shopping can also reduce customers in markets.”

Several church ministries also resumed services in communities. However, three Catholic dioceses of Punjab are still awaiting government-approved SOPs.

“The virus is still spreading. No doubt the government has given us permission, but we shall review the situation this week. The decision to open church doors depends on the number of cases,” said Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore during a May 17 Mass broadcast live on the Facebook page of Catholic TV.

Bishop Indrias Rehmat of Faisalabad also prefers online Masses. “I am actually surprised seeing the Eid shopping fervor. The announcement regarding churches came via television. Our vicar general spoke with the administration, who are still awaiting orders,” he said.

Rev. Majeed Abel, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, demanded the same norms for all religious feasts.

“We believe the danger is increasing. Our community celebrated Easter in old clothes while the crowds gather every Friday. The virus is here to stay. More than 30 new deaths are being reported every day. The upcoming feasts should be observed with simplicity. There will be no miracle if people neglect precaution,” he said.

“This is truly a test of faith. Amid financial challenges, our top priority is to protect the congregation. The government succumbed to public pressure.”

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