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South Korean Catholics resume church services

Large indoor spaces such as churches are still high-risk areas for Covid-19 to spread, say authorities

UCA News reporter, Seoul

UCA News reporter, Seoul

Updated: April 29, 2020 03:55 PM GMT
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South Korean Catholics resume church services

A Catholic in Daegu Archdiocese reads a directive banning Masses placed in front of Nasam Parish on Feb. 20. The archdiocese was seeking to contain the fast-spreading Covid-19 virus. (Photo: Catholic Times)

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Catholic churches in South Korea have resumed community prayers, maintaining strict precautions of social distancing as they gathered for worship after a gap of two months.

With Cheongju and Jeonju dioceses resuming public services on April 28, at least 12 of the 16 dioceses in the country have resumed public worship, which was stopped around Ash Wednesday on Feb. 26 as a way to check the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Religious activities resumed as social and economic life gathered steam after authorities lifted restrictions on public meetings on April 26 following a drop in virus infections.

Seoul Archdiocese was among the first to resume Masses on April 23 and conducted Sunday Mass on April 26, but it insisted on registration of worshipers to restrict their numbers.

Church and civil authorities have asked people to wear masks and keep social distancing norms within churches as a precaution.

"I'm very happy to celebrate Mass with you beloved people after missing Masses for two months, including Easter Mass," said Auxiliary Bishop Benedict Son Hee-song, the vicar general of Seoul. "We cannot sing hymns [for fear of spreading the virus through droplets] and we have to restrict numbers." 

Precautions include checking the body temperature of attendees to make sure they do not have a fever.

Masan Diocese and Kwangju Archdiocese are planning to resume public worship in the first week of May, while most churches in South Korea will have regular Masses by mid-May, a church source said.

The resumption of Masses was like ending starvation, said Sarah Choi Gwi-hye, who attended Sunday Mass at Seoul Cathedral.

"We all have been starved of the Eucharist for two months. With the Mass, I felt the love of God. I'm pleased to join this long-awaited Mass," she told UCA News.

Rosa Park Sun-hee in Dangu Parish of Wonju Diocese wants church worship "without so many restrictions, like what it was before."

"I wish the pandemic ends soon and we can share the joy in our Lord Christ together, as we did before," he said after the April 26 Mass.

Drive-in services, where members attend Mass by parking their cars on school playgrounds, were also initiated by some Christian congregations during the outbreak.

A democratic success

South Korea's preventive measures against the pandemic received global attention, with some lauding its "democratic" form of intervention compared with China's autocratic model.

The success is attributed to an aggressive testing and contact-tracing regimen. South Korea has reported some 10,700 cases and 246 deaths from the pandemic despite being the first nation outside China to see a major outbreak at the start of this year.

On April 19, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported only eight new Covid-19 cases — the first single-digit rise in two months. And subsequently the number dropped even lower.

A mysterious Christian sect, Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was linked with most cases reported in the country. A 61-year-old church member infected other members, causing the pandemic to surge in the church's headquarters in the city of Daegu.

The group's leader later apologized and promised to cooperate with the government in providing the contact details of all its members to help the administration trace and quarantine potential infection carriers.

The nation had a collective sigh of relief when Daegu, the epicenter of the country's outbreak, reported zero cases for the first time in 52 days on April 10. 

Churches in high-risk group 

Authorities still consider large indoor spaces as having a high risk. This concern is based on the experience of the Shincheonji Church. In early March, 56 percent of cases in the country involved its members. Even today, half of South Korea's 10,728 cases are connected to the Christian sect.

"There is a higher chance of infection in confined and dense places like churches, clubs and bars, especially among those in their twenties who account for the biggest portion of infected people," Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a briefing.

On April 28, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the impact of the pandemic will hit the country's future growth. Speaking at a policy meeting, he said massive job losses are his particular concern.

South Korean consumers turned the most pessimistic in more than 11 years in April. The composite consumer sentiment index plunged to 70.8 in April, down from 78.4 the previous month, Bank of Korea data showed.

The pandemic pushed South Korea's economy in the first quarter into its most significant contraction since 2008.

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