- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

TORONTO Canada's outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has prompted the Roman Catholic Church to dramatically change the way worshippers will take Communion during Easter week celebrations that begin today.
Priests in Toronto, the hardest-hit city in North America, were instructed yesterday to place the wafers representing the body of Christ into the hands of parishioners rather than onto their tongues. The serving of wine, representing the blood of Christ, will be dispensed with altogether.
In addition, worshippers are being instructed not to kiss the crucifix on Good Friday as is traditional, but simply to bow or kneel and make the sign of the cross.
The traditional shaking of hands for the salutation of peace must be replaced by a gesture such as bowing, church officials have been told, and the sacrament of reconciliation will be celebrated outside of church confessionals.
Catholic leaders say they are also telling parishioners they will be forgiven for skipping Easter services altogether if they have a fever, are coughing or sneezing all signs of a relatively benign cold or flu, but also symptoms of SARS.
Anglican church leaders issued similar instructions for their Toronto area disoceses yesterday.
"We are aware that many clergy and worshippers find this a stressful time and seek guidance from the church," said the Most Rev. Terence E. Finlay, the Anglican archbishop of Toronto. "It is more important that everyone feel comfortable."
Religious leaders admit the steps may be unorthodox, but say the measures are meant simply to prevent the spread of the mysterious virus, which has already killed 13 persons in Toronto region and 159 worldwide.
"Their public-health duty is their religious duty," said Catholic Bishop John Boissonneau, referring to clergy. "They're responsible before their God and within their community to safeguard the common good," he added. "They honor God by following the directives for the health of the community."
The Easter restrictions were announced just a day after public-health authorities revealed more than 500 members of a Catholic group in the Toronto area had been quarantined.
At least 29 people belonging to Bukas Loob Sa Diyos a Philippine phrase meaning "open in the spirit to God" are considered to have either probable or suspected cases of SARS.
They are counted among 249 probable and suspected SARS cases in Ontario, Canada's largest province, apart from the 13 who have already died.
Medical workers here knew some of the sect members had SARS as early as April 5 and asked the group to stop meeting until the outbreak was contained. But reports say many continued to gather informally.
"The majority of cases were actually previously identified, and now the pattern is emerging that has linked them all together," said Dr. Sheela Basrur, Toronto's chief health official.
"Five hundred members attended a Mass; 200 attended a prayer group," she explained. "By then, the cat was out of the bag."
Public-health authorities insist they have not lost control of the situation. But some critics wonder if the group's condition should have been addressed earlier.
Some even raise the unnerving prospect the delay may have created a situation similar to that of a Hong Kong apartment complex where hundreds of residents have been infected with SARS but have mostly ignored isolation orders.
The virus first appeared in China and was carried to Hong Kong by travelers. Authorities in Hong Kong say 61 persons there have died of SARS while more than 1,200 have been sickened. The disease is believed to have been carried from there to Toronto, which has a large Hong Kong Chinese community.
"All the stops have to come out now," warned Dr. Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. "We have a short window of opportunity to try to contain this."


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