Timorese boys ride their bicycles in front of the cathedral church in Dili in this file photo. The government has relaxed Covid-19 restrictions by allowing churches and other places of worship to reopen. (Photo: AFP)
Timor-Leste’s government has lifted a ban that has prevented Catholics and members of other religions from going to places of worship in the capital Dili for more than two months following a spike in Covid-19 cases in early March.
The Council of Ministers announced the decision on May 26 following an assessment of the coronavirus situation by the Integrated Crisis Management Center, the agency dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak.
Prior to the decision, residents in the capital were still prohibited from leaving their homes except for health and work purposes and to access to essential goods and services.
“Collective religious celebrations and other group worship events are now allowed provided that those attending such ceremonies maintain a distance of at least one meter from each other and wear a face mask,” the government said in an official statement.
It said the decision took into account requests made by Archbishop Virgil Carmo da Silva of Dili, who promised that the Church will adhere to health protocols during services.
Father Angelo Salshina, chairman of Dili Archdiocese's Covid-19 pastoral support team, told UCA News that the archdiocese has yet to decide when church doors will reopen.
We are still worried about many people who do not really adhere to health protocols
"It is likely that it will happen this week or early June," said the priest, who was also infected with Covid-19 and has just finished undergoing self-quarantine.
Reverend Lorenso Dos Santos, chief adviser to the Synod of Protestant Churches in Timor-Leste, said they would resume services on May 30. Mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing will be observed, he said.
Siu Peng Lay, head of the Confucian community in Timor-Leste, said they would hold off on resuming communal events for the time being.
"We are still worried about many people who do not really adhere to health protocols. We would prefer to stick to online events for now,” he told UCA News.
News about the lifting of the worship ban came as a surprise as the number of Covid-19 cases was still increasing. As of May 26, the country had recorded a total of 6,014 infections, 14 deaths and 2,666 active cases.
Apart from Dili, where 80 percent of active cases are located, the municipalities of Baucau, Covalima, Bobonaro and Viqueque have also recorded cases.
In the past week, new infections have exceeded 200 each day.