SCMP: Beijing shuts religious venues as coronavirus spreads in Hebei Catholic heartland

Places of worship in the capital closed temporarily to prevent gatherings

   Official Catholic bodies in neighbouring Shijiazhuang deny widespread cases among members

Mimi Lau

Published: 10:15pm, 8 Jan, 2021

Authorities have shut down all 155 official religious venues in the Chinese capital after “a number of”coronavirus patients from neighbouring Hebei province reportedly attended religious gatherings.

As of Thursday, about 300 people had been confirmed with the coronavirus in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital. Most of the cases were from rural areas of the city, while 15 others were reported in the nearby city of Xingtai.

Before the outbreak erupted last weekend, Hebei had not reported a case since June.

It has not been confirmed whether the outbreak was linked to local religious activities or particular religious groups, but Hebei is known as China’s Catholic heartland, with Catholics attending gatherings in officially sanctioned churches as well as underground venues that range from farmhouses to homes.

Chinese authorities suspended religious activities across the country last year to contain the pandemic and religious venues have only been reopened to the public in the past few months.

According to medical field notes published by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the first case identified in the Hebei outbreak was a 61-year-old woman from a rural village in Gaocheng district in Shijiazhuang. The patient reported a fever and tested positive on January 2.

Two weeks before her diagnosis, the patient said she had stayed at home, visited family and attended religious gatherings in the village, wearing masks from time to time, according to the CDC.

However, the patient also attended a wedding banquet in the village with about 250 people on December 28.

The CDC note said the virus strain discovered in Shijiazhuang closely resembled the Russian strain of the coronavirus.

According to a village chief Xiaoguozhuang in Gaocheng, “some elderly villagers” regularly attended religious activities.

“Apart from the wedding banquet, some of our elderly villagers attend home-based religious gatherings every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. There would be about several dozens of them at each gathering,” the officialHealth Times quoted the chief as saying.

But the Shijiazhuang Patriotic Catholic Association and the official Catholic diocese in the city denied the church was linked to the spread of the virus.

“As of [Thursday], there is only one Catholic from Shijiazhuang who has been confirmed with Covid-19,” the association said in a statement.

Nevertheless, on Friday Beijing religious affairs commission announced that all 155 religious venues in the capital would be temporarily closed to the public and all religious activities would be suspended to prevent crowd gatherings.

Reverend Professor Lo Lung-kwong, a research fellow at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s school of divinity, said the outbreak in Hebei would not prompt further tightening of religious activities.

“Banning risky social gatherings in times of pandemic is only common sense. Mainland authorities do not need this outbreak as an excuse to further tighten control as they have previously approved reopening churches and religious gatherings once the pandemic was under control a few months ago,” Lo said.

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