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South Sudan Catholics Return to Church

FILE - A South Sudanese woman wears a Catholic cross as she prays during a Mass celebrated at the St. Theresa Cathedral Church Kator, in Juba, March 3, 2019.
FILE - A South Sudanese woman wears a Catholic cross as she prays during a Mass celebrated at the St. Theresa Cathedral Church Kator, in Juba, March 3, 2019.

Hundreds of Catholic faithful in the South Sudan capital Juba returned to Mass on Sunday, nearly five months after the government suspended religious, social and political gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The ban on religious services was lifted two weeks ago. Sabina Doki Plachido, 56, was one of hundreds of worshippers who attended Mass at Juba's St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

"It is like Christmas today. Or it is like the resurrection of Christ because ... from childhood, we used to come to this church. The church became part and parcel of our bodies spiritually. If you don't come here, you find something is missing," Plachido told VOA's South Sudan in Focus.

Rita Juan Dimitri said she has been "waiting and longing for this day" since last week, when her parish priest announced the church was reopening.

"I was so grateful, because I was following the prayers online through Bakhita radio and when I pray, when it comes to the time people receive the Holy Communion, I feel like I need to receive the real Jesus, I need to receive the Holy Communion, but I couldn't," Dimitri said.

COVID rules

New guidelines for congregants were announced by Metropolitan Archbishop of Juba Diocese Stephen Ameyu Martin.

"All the people will have face masks and all of them will have to wash their hands at the entrance and all other social distancing protocols are all observed," Martin said.

South Sudan's Catholic churches are offering more services to ensure that fewer people attend each one, according to the archbishop. Juba's Kator Parish, which used to have Mass three times each weekend, will now have it six times.

The leadership also issued new guidelines for taking Holy Communion. A priest will give a wafer to a congregant, the congregant will move about one meter away, swallow it, then walk away.

That marks a significant change from the past, said Plachido.

"Before, we were used to that you line up and then the priest gives the Holy Communion to you, he gives it with his own hands to your mouth, but this time it is not to your mouth because of the fear of the infection," Plachido told VOA.

Martin said congregants also will be screened before entering church to determine if they have abnormal temperatures.

Monitoring numbers

Some congregants are reluctant to follow the new guidelines, according to Rita Juan, a member of the COVID-19 task force of South Sudan's Catholic Church.

"Some people remove the masks because it actually causes, like it suffocates or it sometimes causes [a] headache. That is why they remove their masks but we also inform them in the church today, it is only 40 minutes and we will be out of the church and it is for their safety and the safety of others," Juan told South Sudan in Focus.

The archbishop said the church leadership realizes the pandemic is still a threat to human life.

"We will always monitor the infection of the people; if the people are infected more and more, we could still close down our churches," Martin told VOA.