Coronavirus: Places of worship in Singapore taking cautious approach before resuming mass prayers

Places of worship are required to submit a Safe Management plan. PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN, ST FILE, GAVIN FOO, GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Churches, temples and mosques are adopting a cautious approach in resuming mass prayers and congregations here, even as government guidelines allow for up to 50 worshippers at each session from Friday (June 26).

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, for example, said that Catholic churches will progressively open from July, with attendees limited to only one church, as "church-hopping" presents a risk of the virus spreading across multiple churches.

In a statement, it added that each church will inform congregants when its masses resume.

The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) issued the guidelines last week as Singapore moved into phase two of its exit from the circuit breaker period last Friday.

Mass gatherings, especially in closed spaces including places of worship in Singapore and abroad, have contributed to the coronavirus spread, which has seen more than 40,000 infections in Singapore.

In the early days of the pandemic in February, South Korea saw its Covid-19 cases surge to over 600, with more than half linked to a church in the city of Daegu.

In March, five Singaporeans who returned from a large religious gathering in Malaysia tested positive for the coronavirus. By then, they had visited 10 mosques in Singapore during their infectious period.

An early cluster in Singapore was discovered at the Grace Assembly of God church, which saw 23 people infected. Clusters also emerged at The Life Church and Missions Singapore, and the Church of Singapore (Bukit Timah).

The Life Church and Missions Singapore was the first church of the three to be impacted by the coronavirus.

As part of the guidelines, MCCY requires the places of worship to submit a Safe Management plan, which must include provisions for SafeEntry.

Temperature screening and masks are a must and the places of worship are to also remove shared prayer items, among other things.

The plans must be submitted at least three days before the place of worship can open its doors to attendees.

The Sikh Advisory Board told The Straits Times that most of the seven Sikh temples here have yet to submit their Safe Management plan with MCCY. They intend to do so by this week so that they can start congregations next week.

Under the guidelines, singing and other live performances are not allowed during worship services.

But the Sikh temples are hoping MCCY will allow hymn singing - a key tenet of worship in Sikhism - if it is done only by priests behind partitions in the prayer hall, a separate room, or with singers wearing masks.

"Singing is a core part of meaningful congregation that has been missing in the temples these past few months," said a Sikh Advisory Board spokesman.

Mr Sarjit Singh, 72, is looking forward to returning to the Central Sikh Temple, after months of watching livestreamed prayer sessions at home.

"The environment in the temple is different and vibrant, and in Sikhism, we are encouraged to pray together as a congregation," said the engineering consultant.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese is setting up a new portal where attendees must register before attending mass. Registration is open from 9am on Saturday, before services commence next week.

Mr Thomas Vithayathil, who is in his 50s, said his family can stick to one church.

But he added it might become a challenge over time since the family attends one church for weekday masses and another for weekend catechism classes.

"But we are excited that mass services are resuming soon," said the IT manager.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) has also introduced a new prayer slot booking system.

On Friday, mosques here will hold the first Friday prayer session in about three months. All slots have been booked.

The Hindu Endowments Board said its four Hindu temples will host up to 50 visitors each time, to maintain safe distancing.

Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, the largest Buddhist temple in Singapore, will for now follow the phase one guidelines for religious activities, which allows private worship for up to five households at a time.

It said its private worship slots are fully booked till the end of June.

The Straits Times understands that representatives from over 200 churches held an online meeting with MCCY over two days from Monday to clarify how religious activities can be conducted in phase two of Singapore's reopening.

The meeting was facilitated by the National Council of Churches of Singapore.

Correction note: The Life Church and Missions Singapore was the first church of the three to be impacted by the coronavirus, and not Grace Assembly of God church. We are sorry for the error.

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