August 21, 2009 / 5:58 AM / 10 years ago

No holy water? Japan churches drain basins as flu spreads

Japanese high school students wearing masks in Tokyo May 17, 2009. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

TOKYO (Reuters) - Catholic churchgoers in Tokyo will have to do without holy water for now as the H1N1 influenza outbreak prompts Japanese churches to take steps to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Franciscan Chapel Center in Tokyo is one church that has decided to empty the holy water basins, into which parishioners traditionally dip their fingers and bless themselves by making a sign of the cross.

The church, which serves mostly expatriates in a country that is only about 0.4 percent Catholic, has also requested that people greet each other by bowing instead of shaking hands as a way to reduce the risk of infection.

“We have such an international gathering, people come from many nations in the world and the risk is higher than in other Japanese situations,” said Callistus Sweeney, pastor at the Franciscan Chapel Center.

The church will keep in place the measures, which were recommended by the Tokyo archdiocese, “until the danger has passed,” he said.

Japan has seen a recent surge in the number of H1N1 flu cases and has confirmed three deaths from the disease in the past week.

The virus has caused the first pandemic of the 21st century, according to the World Health Organization, and is expected to worsen when the northern hemisphere’s autumn weather sets in.

Sweeney said he has seen a positive reaction to the steps, in particular that ministers must clean their hands with disinfectant towels before distributing communion wafers.

St. Ignatius, another church in Tokyo with a large international following, has also banned holy water for now and said it may consider further steps if necessary to help prevent the spread of the flu.

Reporting by Chris Gallagher, editing by Miral Fahmy

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