Coronavirus: South Korea churches halt services as cases soar


Christian faithfuls wearing masks to prevent contacting the coronavirus sit during a service at a church in Seoul, South Korea, March 1, 2020. YonhapImage copyright

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The few Christian services being held in South Korea are thinly attended

Roman Catholic churches remained closed across South Korea on Sunday, as officials struggle with a coronavirus outbreak that has led to the cancellation of many public gatherings.

The Catholic Church has an estimated 5,8m members in the country.

Major Protestant groups have also halted Sunday services. All Buddhist events have been called off.

South Korea is battling the worst coronavirus outbreak outside China, with 3,736 cases and 18 deaths so far.

Religion is at the centre of South Korea’s outbreak. Authorities say members of the fringe Christian group Shincheonji Church infected one another in the southern city of Daegu last month, before fanning out around the country.

More than 85,403 cases of the new coronavirus have been confirmed in over 50 countries, according to the World Health Organization.

The global death toll is more than 2,900. The vast majority of infections and deaths are in China.

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On Sunday, Australia and Thailand also recorded their first fatalities from coronavirus.

A 78-year-old Australian man died after being infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan last month.

Thailand, which has had 42 cases of the virus, said a 35-year-old man who died was also suffering from dengue fever.

What’s happening in South Korea?

The Catholic Church – one of the main religious communities in the country – has suspended Masses in all its 1,734 parishes until 7 March.

The Church had never taken such a step in 236 years of presence in South Korea.

The country’s Buddhist organisations cancelled events earlier this week. Major protestant churches are holding Sunday services online.

In the capital Seoul, worshippers were turned away from the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which posted a sermon for its 560,000 followers on YouTube, Reuters news agency reported.

“I had heard there would be no service, but just came to check,” Song Young-koo told Reuters. “It’s a wise decision to do it online, since the virus would easily spread at mass gatherings and churches can be no exception.”

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The South Korean army has been spraying disinfectant in public areas

On Sunday officials said nearly 9,000 followers of the Daegu-based Shincheonji Church were showing signs of the coronavirus and are being tested.

The South Korean government has restricted public events in an effort to stop the virus from spreading. The K-pop group BTS has cancelled a forthcoming concert series in Seoul.

  • A visual guide to the outbreak
  • How worried should we be?

What about the rest of the world?

  • The US on Saturday reported the first death in the country, in the state of Washington. Officials said the patient was a man in his 50s with underlying health conditions
  • France has banned large indoors gatherings. Many open-air events have also been cancelled, including Paris’s half-marathon and a fireworks display in the southern city of Nice – both were due on Sunday
  • In Japan only a few hundred elite athletes competed in the Tokyo marathon. About 38,000 runners had been expected to take part, before the event was closed to general competitors
  • Iran reported 385 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, bringing the total to 978 so far. The death toll rose to 54
  • Italy – the worst-hit country Europe – says it will introduce measures worth 3.6bn euros (£3.10bn) to deal with the economic impact of the outbreak

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