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Say a little prayer, remotely: Taiwan's faithful limit gatherings

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Taipei (AFP)

Buddhist monk Chang Kuan delivers a sermon to an empty room, his words live-streamed to followers praying at home as Taiwan's faithful learn to cut back on mass gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.

Taiwan has been widely praised for its proactive response to the outbreak -- despite its cultural and geographical proximity to China, the island has just 77 cases.

Religious communities have moved fast to limit mass gatherings.

Four of the island's biggest Buddhist organisations dropped traditional prayer meetings and told people to follow the worship online instead.

Popular pilgrimages have been scrapped and some churches have either shut their doors or are ensuring congregants remain at least a metre apart.

Guo Huei, Abbot President of Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM), one of the organisations that has embraced live-streaming, said Taiwan's previous experience with the deadly SARS outbreak in 2003 taught the island to take the new coronavirus seriously.

"We called an emergency meeting of senior monks after we heard that Wuhan was under a lockdown," he told AFP.

The temple stopped all on-site worship immediately and urged practioners to stay home.

"Doing meditation and praying at home is the same as here," Guo said, referring to the sprawling temple complex he oversees perched half way up a mountain on the outskirts of Taipei.

"We can't have tens or hundreds of people together because it's very risky," he added.

Julian Lin and his wife usually attend DDM's lecture each week. But they said they understood the need to stay away from crowds.

"Online meditation and teaching sessions may be convenient, but the atmosphere is still not the same," Lin told AFP from his home where the lecture was being broadcast on a laptop.

- Super spreaders -

Public health experts battling the global pandemic have warned of the risks posed by large religious ceremonies in spreading infection.

The most dramatic example is South Korea where more than half of the country's 8,200 COVID-19 cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an opaque religious sect often condemned as a cult.

One of its members attended at least four services in the southern city of Daegu -- which became the centre of the country's epidemic -- before being diagnosed.

In Iran authorities placed restrictions on holy sites in response to concerns about the virus spreading in Qom, the epicentre of the country's outbreak and a place of pilgrimage for thousands of people.

And governments across Southeast Asia are now searching for thousands of Muslim missionaries who attended prayers at a mosque outside the Malaysian capital last month that have been linked to a surge in coronavirus cases in the region.

After SARS killed 84 people in Taiwan in 2003 -- the third highest toll after Hong Kong and mainland China -- Taiwan vowed to be ready for the next pandemic, setting up a dedicated command centre for future outbreaks.

The centre went operational on January 20, before China had even locked down the city of Wuhan where the virus first emerged, and it coordinates the island's response.

On advice from the centre, three large pilgrimages to the popular goddess Mazu that attract more than a million people were postponed indefinitely.

Many of Taiwan's large Catholic churches have also suspended Sunday Mass.

At St. Christopher's Church in Taipei, which is popular with Filipino migrant workers, devotees have been arriving to a sign stating: "Closed for pastoral and social purposes indefinitely."

"I was surprised but we understand this is good for us also, for ourselves to avoid being infected by the coronavirus," she told AFP.

Father Otfried Chan of the Chinese Regional Bishops' Conference in Taiwan said each parish should decide whether to cancel gatherings or mitigate risks with temperature checks and social distancing.

"We should err on the side of caution," he said. "If there is one confirmed case in the church, that would be a big burden on the country."

At the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in downtown Taipei, the doors were open for worshippers on a recent Sunday.

Those entering rubbed their hands with sanitiser, had their body temperature taken and were told to sit at least a metre apart during the service.

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