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Christians offering Good Friday prayers at St. Mary's chruch in Dubai. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai: The Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, Bishop Paul Hinder, has issued guidelines for all Catholic churches across the UAE and Oman to contain the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) contagion.

In a letter addressed to all priests and lay ministers dated March 4, Bishop Hinder said: “People with serious colds or other illnesses are advised to stay at home.”

“The faithful are advised to maintain personal hygiene and the recommendations of the authorities with regard to the cleaning of public places should be followed,” he added.

In the UAE, there are nine Catholic churches and the number of Catholics represent at least nine percent or one million of the total population. The Catholics are largely Filipinos, Indians, Lebanese, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Koreans and from some African and South American countries.

Bishop Hinder assured them that there is no need for the public to be unduly alarmed or to panic. “The UAE government is taking timely and effective precautions to greatly minimise the risk of the spread of the virus,” he noted.

Bishop Hinder added it is necessary for Catholics to take precautions because of their “unique situation as a migrant Church, with faithful moving in and out of the country for professional or personal reasons.”

Other measures that will be implemented in all churches include intensive cleaning of washrooms, doors and other frequently touched surfaces.

Receiving of the Holy Communion will only be in the hand; Communion ministers should use hand sanitisers to clean their hands before distributing Holy Communion; and the Holy Water fonts at the church entrances will be emptied.

Exchanging the sign of peace by touching hands is disallowed and will be replaced by bowing of heads. All catechism classes for kids aged 6-14 years will all be suspended for one month or the duration of the closure of private schools according to governmental guidelines.

The guidelines will take effect from March 6 until April 2. “Before Palm Sunday (April 5) we will re-evaluate them according to the local situation and the advice of the competent civil authorities, and extend or update them as necessary,” Bishop Hinder noted.

No closure of churches

Fr. Reinhold Sahner, parish priest of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, Jebel Ali, told Gulf News there are no extraordinary measures being enforced such as temporarily closure of churches, unlike in Kuwait where churches are on temporary lockdown until March 14.

“Mass timings are the same and services this Lent season are the same as last year. If the UAE authorities make any recommendations we will act accordingly” Sahner added.

In an earlier interview with Gulf News, Fr. Lennie J A Connully, parish priest at St Mary’s Catholic Church Dubai, said there could be a 5-10 per cent decline in the number of regular churchgoers because of coronavirus fear. “But there has been no marked decrease in the number of Friday and Sunday worshippers so far.”

“If people avoid going to the church for fear of contracting coronavirus, we will understand. If they feel more secure and comfortable at home, it is fine. God will not punish them. But what is very important is for them to continue praying fervently,” underlined Fr Connully, who heads the biggest parish in the world that serves over 350,000 multinational churchgoers.