On Feb 26, the Christian holy day known as Ash Wednesday, Catholics in Malaysia and the Philippines will have dry ash sprinkled onto their heads instead of the traditional smearing of a damp grey-black ash cross. Singaporean Catholics will have to do without their ashes as the church hierarchy there has suspended all public gatherings.
Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, stated on Saturday (Feb 22) that the measures were motivated by "our concern for the well-being of our brothers and sisters" and the taking of the "utmost care and efforts towards the prevention of the spread of Covid-19."
The outbreak, caused by a new strain of coronavirus that has spread to around two dozen countries, has killed over 2,200 people, mostly in China, where the pandemic originated.
Announcing Malaysia's Ash Wednesday restrictions, Valles' counterpart Julian Leow Kim Bing offered prayers "for those who continue to put themselves in danger's way" to tackle the virus.
William Goh, the archbishop of Singapore, stated that churches will remain closed "until there is greater clarity on the way forward." Priests in the city-state are celebrating closed-door Masses that Catholics can watch online.
While Singapore has 85 positive diagnoses for the novel coronavirus, all but five of Malaysia's 22 cases have been deemed cured. The Philippines has three cases, including one death of a Chinese visitor.
The Philippines and East Timor are Asia's only two Christian-majority countries, though countries such as China, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam are home to substantial Catholic and other Christian minorities.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, historically a six-week period of fasting leading up to Easter.
Many Christian denominations celebrate Ash Wednesday, though the marking of foreheads with an ash cross to signify repentance, is a largely Catholic tradition. - dpa/Asian News Network