Filipino churches change practices to halt spread of respiratory virus

April 29, 2003

Many religious practices in the Philippines are adapting in response to the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) after health officials reported four cases of the virus, two of them resulting in death.

Roman Catholic Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin of Manila, in a circular issued on Saturday, forbade the common custom of kissing statues of saints then wiping them with a handkerchief. The majority of the country's 82 million population is Catholic.

'In this moment of uncertainty about this illness [SARS], we recommend that communion in the hand be practiced,' Sin said, suggesting that priests put communion wafers in the hands of worshippers, instead of placing it on their tongues.

Romulo Ponte, a Catholic priest from the province of Laguna, south of Manila, is now giving communion by the hand. 'An ounce of prevention is far better than a pound of cure,' he said.

Non-Catholic churches have also taken preventive measures. At the Metro Olongapo Christian Church, common displays of community have been toned down. 'To protect our children and prevent the spread of the disease, let us avoid kissing the babies in our church,' the Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted Bladimir Perez, a minister of the church, as telling his congregation in Olongapo City, north of Manila.

At other churches, pastors have discouraged their congregation from holding hands during the Lord's Prayer and from shaking hands as a sign of peace, and suggested replacing such gestures with a nod of the head.

A prayer healing ministry of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines has included the SARS situation in its regular prayer meetings. 'We still believe that faith can move mountains,' Marites Balacuit, the head of the prayer ministry, told ENI.

In some countries, such as Singapore, which has been heavily hit by the disease, priests have stopped hearing individual confessions to prevent close contact with parishioners who might have the SARS virus, news agencies reported. They are instead pronouncing a general absolution to their parishioners from the pulpit.

The entry of SARS into the Philippines has been declared a national emergency following the recent death of two Filipinos, both overseas workers.