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Coronavirus empties pews in Catholic Poland

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Dluga Koscielna (Pologne) (AFP)

Following calls to stay home by government and religious authorities, many Poles avoided Sunday mass to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, an unprecedented move in the devout Catholic country that filled pews even in communist times.

"I'll be honest, I'm young but neither I nor the older folks I've talked to can recall a similar situation during the last few decades," Cezary Szadujkis, a vicar in his 30s, told AFP.

On Sunday he held mass for a congregation of one person at his church in the village of Dluga Koscielna, 20 kilometres (12 miles) to the east of Warsaw, where normally around 350 people would attend.

The only parishioner present, a woman who had requested the mass for a specific intention, received communion in the traditional way, with the priest using his fingers to place the wafer directly on her tongue, Szadujkis said.

That went against sanitary guidelines recommended by both the church and state in the EU nation of 38 million people which has registered 119 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including three deaths.

"We've been keeping a record of those who enter the church, including their phone numbers, so that we can contact them if necessary," Szadujkis told AFP.

The service in Dluga Koscielna ended with a hymn requesting divine protection for the sick.

In eastern Warsaw, at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, attendance at family mass on Sunday was down from the usual 550 or so people to only 38.

"Our parishioners are obedient. Only a tenth of the usual number are here today," said the priest, Krzysztof Ukleja.

In the entryway, two church volunteers distributed numbered tickets to ensure attendance would not exceed the government's recent 50-person limit on public gatherings.

Over the last few days, Poles have been debating the pros and cons of church attendance in the coronavirus era.

Certain bishops were criticised for having initially proposed increasing the number of masses to allow parishioners to maintain a safe distance of at least a metre and a half between each other, as recommended by government officials.

But in the end the episcopate announced an exemption and invited the faithful to take part in Sunday mass via the internet, radio or television.

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