Archbishop Simon Poh advocates caution on reopening of Churches and houses of worship

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By Ivy Chai

KUCHING — The National Unity Ministry held an online meeting with representatives of religious bodies on 16 May. It was chaired by its minister, Halimah Mohamed Sadique.

The meeting was to discuss, collect feedback and propose selected houses of worship in COVID-19 green zones that may be reopened while the CMCO is still in force. SOPs for the reopening of selected mosques and suraus had been issued earlier.

Among those who took part in the discussions were representatives from the Christian Federation of Malaysia, Malaysia Gurdwara Council, Malaysian Buddhist Association, Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia and the Federation of Taoist Associations Malaysia.

Also represented were the Christian Youth Association of Malaysia, Fo Guang Shan Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Malaysia, Malaysia Hindu Sangam, Buddhist Missionaries Malaysia Society and the Council of Churches of Malaysia.

Catholic Archbishop Simon Poh, Chairman of the Association of Churches in Sarawak, in a press release on 17 May said: “Christians in Sarawak have been in support of our State to contain COVID-19. We had in fact suspended our Sunday services on 15 March in Kuching and later throughout the State, even before the first phase of MCO was announced on 18 March. It has been more than two months that all our services have been suspended in houses of worships and in our Churches in Sarawak. News of the possibility of opening our houses of worship will definitely be welcomed. There is a need to stay focused on primarily containing further COVID-19 outbreaks.”

He credited the State Disaster Management Committee, who with the active cooperation of the people of Sarawak, have helped to prevent further spread of new COVID-19 clusters.

Since 12 May, in line with Federal Laws, the Government has allowed opening of certain sectors of business and offices. Similarly, Sarawak UNIFOR has also issued permissions for Church offices throughout Sarawak to be opened. However he added, “Catholic Churches and many other churches are proceeding cautiously and slowly.”

He disclosed that although staffs in parish offices have returned to work, they remain operating behind closed doors, undergoing training to deal with the eventual opening to the public. All necessary precautionary measures must be put in place.

Although Archbishop Simon acknowledged the necessity to open up certain businesses, he remained cautious. “When I count the standard 14-days as the incubation period of COVID-19 infection from 12 May onwards, this will happen around 26 May which will coincide with the days around Hari Raya. Gawai follows a week later, on 1 June. I sincerely pray that there will be no new clusters within this week and that rural villages, towns and cities will remain COVID-19 free. We must all cooperate to ensure that we are not hit by a second wave,” he wrote.

“Though I would be glad to have our Churches and respective houses of worship opened to the people of Sarawak, I am of the opinion that we in Sarawak, should not be rushed into making a decision that is advocated in other States in Malaysia. This is the reason I advocate a cautious approach before opening our churches. We need to carefully analyse the local statistics of COVID-19 as confirmed by our State Disaster Management Committee. We need to be prudent and go slow to help ensure that there will be no second wave of COVID-19 infections in our State. 

“At the same time, it is good to begin preparation for the day when Churches and houses of worship can be open for gathering of worshippers. ACS heads of Churches and respective spiritual leaders are now working out respective SOP and protocol. I have already presented a draft copy to UNIFOR,” he added.

Even with the reopening, the Archbishop “would like to encourage elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions to stay safe at home and to continue to worship via live stream Masses or Services with families in the safety of their home.”

He asked for “understanding” and to be patient with the current situation to break the chain of COVID-19 outbreak. “It is this sacrifice, made by all people of all religions together, that will eventually ensure that our society and especially our Churches will be a safe environment for worship in the near future.

“In the meantime, I encourage everyone to practise the post-COVID-19 new norm of social distancing especially during the coming critical weeks of CMCO during Raya and Gawai. Let each religious tradition pray for God’s divine intervention, that there will be no further infection and outbreak in our land and nation. We need to stand together as one family in Sarawak and in Malaysia because COVID-19 does not differentiate between any racial, religious or social status,” Archbishop Simon Poh concluded.

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