As coronavirus ‘storm cloud’ gathers, church in Missouri braces for mourning

By Makini Brice

(Reuters) – When Traci Blackmon, the senior pastor for a predominantly black church in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, is finally able to open the doors for service again, one of her main concerns is the collective sorrow her congregation will experience.

Five members of her 180-strong congregation have gotten sick from the coronavirus and two have died. Two others have died during lockdown due to other causes.

But because the doors of Christ the King United Church of Christ have been closed since the end of March to help stop the spread of the virus, members of the church have not been able to be together and console each other.

“It’s almost like a suspended grief,” said Pastor Blackmon. “It’s like when a storm cloud is hanging over and you know that it is going to rain, but it hasn’t fully rained yet.”

Protestant churches with predominantly African-American congregations has played a crucial role in U.S. history, forging historically black colleges and universities such as Morehouse College in Georgia, fueling the Civil Rights Movement, and serving as campaign stop mainstays for political candidates interested in appealing to black voters.

Many of these churches are now bracing to play a prominent role as the United States grieves for its coronavirus dead.

More than 98,000 people in the United States have lost their lives after battling COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and a disproportionate number of them have been black.

In Missouri, while only 11.8% of the state’s residents are black, they account for 37% of reported deaths from COVID-19, according to figures released by the Missouri Department of Health.

Similar racial disparities have appeared across the United States.

Black Americans are the most religious ethnic group in the country, with nearly half attending religious service at least once a week.

One of those faithful was Christ the King’s Eugene Young.

Young would drive his wife, Annie, who he married nearly 45 years ago, to and from church services in the St. Louis area every Sunday, she recalled recently in a telephone interview. He called her “Precious” and was always able to make her laugh. She called him “Sunshine.”

She described a “storybook romance,” with three sons she calls her “kings,” 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Young became sick from the coronavirus in April, though it remains unclear how he caught it. He died at the age of 61, on Easter Sunday, April 12.

“It’s so fresh for me. It’s still unbelievable to me,” Annie Young said.

Because of social distancing guidelines to stop the spread of the virus, Young’s family had a visitation at a funeral home, not the church, limited to ten people at a time. There was no touching or hugging to comfort family members. Everyone needed to wear a mask.

“My three kings and myself got to see him by ourselves, just the four of us, and we got to spend just a little while with him,” she recalled. “So that was our time to say goodbye.”

Christ the King’s congregation has been keeping in touch through the crisis through Zoom calls, Facebook live streams of sermons given from Blackmon’s dining room and Bible studies conducted over the phone, but it isn’t exactly the same, members say.

Wesley Hurt, 77, and his wife Linda joined the Christ the King congregation more than 40 years ago, and have continued to attend services online during the lockdown.

“The whole camaraderie thing is lost, to a certain extent. We are a church that likes to fix meals for each other and we do a lot of cooking. So we haven’t had that opportunity to meet and come together and have our church dinners like we’d normally have,” Hurt said.

Though Missouri allowed churches to reopen on May 4, Christ the King United Church of Christ remains closed. Blackmon said she remains cautious until she sees progress in a number of factors, including testing.

Blackmon had initially planned to hold an Easter service when people were able to safely sit in the pews again, no matter the date.

But she worries now that the celebratory holiday would ring false for people grappling with all that had been lost from the pandemic.

Instead, she is considering devoting the first service to Good Friday, the Christian holiday commemorating the death of Jesus.

“There are a lot of things you can do over Zoom and there are a lot of things that you can do on different channels of the Internet, but what you cannot do is feel,” she said.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Heather Timmons, Ed Tobin and Rosalba O’Brien)

HE IS RISEN! With Joy and Hope, we worship together in our hearts! Happy Easter!

By Kami Klein~~

HE has RISEN! We Worship with JOY and HOPE today from our homes, our cars or even in our backyards! It does not matter where you are for it is in our hearts that we find Him! Whether we are with family, sheltered together or alone we have New Life through Jesus! No matter what happens here in the world, God gave us His promise through the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross. His message is clearer today than ever! YOU are special, YOU are a child of God, you are forgiven and He LOVES YOU!

This Easter, may you truly understand that the Church is not a building or tradition, the Church is not the creeds or statements of belief found in your faith or denomination. The Church is the bride of Jesus. We are a family built from the greatest Love that has ever been known on Earth. No building can hold us, no statement can ever be bigger than the one made on the cross.

Sing with Joy today! Leave your troubles in God’s hands and Celebrate our new lives! Let today bring you strength as we trust HIM and HIS purpose!

Matthew 28 (MEV)

The Resurrection
28 At the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

2 And then there was a great earthquake. For the angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone from the door and sat on it. 3 His countenance was like lightning, and his garments white as snow. 4 The soldiers shook for fear of him and became like dead men.

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid. For I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here. For He has risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead, and indeed, He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see Him. Listen, I have told you.”

8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word. 9 As they went to tell His disciples, suddenly Jesus met them, saying, “Greetings!” They came and took hold of His feet and worshipped Him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell My brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.”

The Report of the Guard
11 While they were going, indeed, some of the soldiers went into the city and described to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests were assembled with the elders and had taken counsel, they gave much money to the soldiers, 13 saying, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were sleeping.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you secure.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were instructed. And this saying has been commonly reported among the Jews to this day.

The Commissioning of the Disciples
16 Then the eleven disciples went away to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw Him, they worshipped Him. But some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

HE is ALWAYS with us!

Happy Easter!

South Korea seeks murder charges as coronavirus kills more than 3,000 worldwide

By Hyonhee Shin and Se Young Lee

SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) – South Korea sought murder charges against leaders of a secretive church at the center of a ballooning coronavirus outbreak in the country on Monday as the global death toll rose above 3,000.

World stock markets regained some calm as hopes for global interest rate cuts to soften the economic blow of the virus steadied nerves after last week’s worst plunge since the 2008 financial crisis.

South Korea reported 599 new coronavirus cases, taking its national tally to 4,335, following the country’s biggest daily jump on Saturday of 813 confirmed infections.

There were 586 more on Sunday, broadening the largest virus outbreak outside China. There have been 26 deaths in total.

Worldwide, the death toll has risen to 3,044, according to Reuters figures.

Of the new cases in South Korea, 377 were from the southeastern city of Daegu, home to a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, to which most of South Korea’s cases have been traced.

The agency said that in January some members of the church visited the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the disease emerged late last year.

The Seoul government asked prosecutors to launch a murder investigation into leaders of the church, a movement that reveres founder Lee Man-hee.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said that if Lee and other heads of the church had cooperated, preventive measures could have saved the people who died.

“The situation is this serious and urgent, but where are the leaders of the Shincheonji, including Lee Man-hee, the chief director of this crisis?” Park said in a post on his Facebook page late on Sunday.

Seoul’s city government said it had filed a criminal complaint with the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, asking for an investigation of Lee and 12 others on charges of murder and disease control act violations.

Lee apologized on Monday that one of its members had infected many others, calling the epidemic a “great calamity”.

“We did our best but was not able to stop the spread of the virus,” Lee told reporters.

It was not immediately known how many of South Korea’s dead were directly connected to the church.

Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the epidemic, closed the first of 16 specially built hospitals, hurriedly put up to treat people with the virus, after it discharged its last recovered patients, state broadcaster CCTV said on Monday.

Graphic: Tracking the novel coronavirus.

‘OUTBREAKS ARE CURBED’

News of the closure coincided with a steep fall in new cases in Hubei province, but China remained on alert for people returning home with the virus from other countries.

“The rapid rising trend of virus cases in Wuhan has been controlled,” Mi Feng, a spokesman for China’s National Health Commission, told a briefing.

“Outbreaks in Hubei outside of Wuhan are curbed and provinces outside of Hubei are showing a positive trend.”

The virus broke out in Wuhan late last year and has since infected more than 86,500 people, the majority in China, with most in Hubei.

Outside China, it has in recent days spread rapidly, now to 53 countries, with more than 6,500 cases and more than 100 deaths. Italy has 1,694 cases, the vast majority in the wealthy northern regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna.

Iran’s number of reported cases rose to 1,501 on Monday, with 66 deaths.

Global factories took a beating in February from the outbreak, with activity in China shrinking at a record pace, surveys showed on Monday, raising the prospect of a coordinated policy response by central banks to prevent a global recession.

The global spread has forced the postponement of festivals, exhibitions, trade fairs and sports events, crippled tourism, retail sales and global supply chains, especially in China, the world’s second-largest economy.

Retail sales in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, already rocked by months of often violent anti-government unrest, fell 21.4% in January from a year earlier.

Middle East airlines have lost an estimated $100 million so far due to the outbreak and governments should help the carriers through this “difficult period”, an official of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said.

Global airlines stand to lose $1.5 billion this year due to the virus, he said.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that the outbreak was pitching the world economy into its worst downturn since the global financial crisis, urging governments and central banks to fight back.

Officials in U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration on Sunday tried to calm market panic that the coronavirus could cause a global recession, saying the U.S. public had over-reacted and that stocks would rebound due to the American economy’s underlying strength.

The S&P 500 index tumbled 11.5% last week. Roughly $4 trillion has been wiped off the value of U.S. stocks.

Speaking to NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the administration’s response to the virus, said the market “will come back”.

“The fundamentals of this economy are strong. We just saw some new numbers come out in housing and consumer confidence and business optimism. Unemployment is at a 50-year low. More Americans are working than ever before,” Pence said.

(Graphic: Reuters graphics on the new coronavirus ,

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Jack Kim in Seoul, Ju-min Park in Gapyeong, Ryan Woo, David Stanway, Se Young Lee, Emily Chow and Andrew Galbraith in Beijing, Leigh Thomas in Paris, Michelle Price in Washington, Leika Kihara in Tokyo, Jonathan Cable in London, Donny Kwok and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Secretive church at center of South Korea’s explosive coronavirus outbreak

By Hyonhee Shin and Hyun Young Yi

DAEGU/SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) – An So-young had a gut feeling that the 31st person in South Korea to test positive for the coronavirus might be a member of the controversial religious sect she quit four years ago.

The person, dubbed “Patient 31,” was the first of an explosive wave of cases that made South Korea’s outbreak the largest outside of China. What caught An’s attention was how health authorities were struggling to track the woman’s movements before she was tested.

“That’s their culture, they have to hide their movements, and that’s why I guessed she was with Shincheonji,” An, 27, said in an interview, referring to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.

Patient 31 attended services at the church’s branch in the southeastern city of Daegu this month, staying for two hours each time, before testing positive on Feb. 18.

The South Korean disease control chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said the church’s services, where thousands of people sit on the floor, shoulder-to-shoulder, for hours, could have contributed to the surges.

“You would be 5 centimeters away from the person who sits next to you, and have to say ‘Amen’ after every sentence the pastor speaks – it’s the best environment for the virus to spread,” said An, who is now a theology student.

In a media interview, Patient 31 said she did not refuse to be tested. But health authorities said she sought care at a traditional medicine hospital in Daegu after a minor car accident, where a medical worker who treated her later tested positive for the virus. While running a fever, she went to a buffet at a hotel and the church services.

Shincheonji is in the biggest crisis in its 36-year history, as hundreds of members have tested positive for the virus, SARS-CoV-2. All of its 210,000 known followers are being tested amid unprecedented scrutiny from authorities and the public.

After initial resistance, the church released the addresses of 1,100 facilities around the country – 82 churches and 1,018 “affiliates,” – and asked the public to avoid making “groundless criticism.” It was the “biggest victim of the virus,” it said.

Calls by Reuters to the church’s headquarters seeking comment went unanswered.

During a visit to the Daegu branch on Friday, a man who identified himself as a member said he was the only one there and told Reuters that “all of our 9,000 members are taking self-quarantine measures in compliance with the government instruction.” He said the building was disinfected twice last week.

 

‘THE DEVIL’S DEED’

South Korea reported 334 new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, bringing the national tally to 1,595. More than 1,000 are from Daegu, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), and nearly 600 are directly linked to Shincheonji’s branch there.

KCDC said that it is still investigating the exact origin of the outbreak, but that five or six other members of the church were infected together with Patient 31.

The church had a presence in Wuhan, the center of the virus in China, according to the KCDC, though it is unclear whether that played a role.

Also known as the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, the church was founded and is headed by self-proclaimed messiah Lee Man-hee.

“This disease case is the devil’s deed to stop the rapid growth of Shincheonji,” Lee said in a message on Friday on an internal app used by members.

But its secretive practices and often-aggressive recruitment tactics have made the church a controversial presence in South Korea’s religious community.

New members are forced to leave home and live in dormitories as part of initiation. Many break ties with their family and begin aggressively recruiting new members, An said.

According to its website, followers must undergo six months of classes and complete a demanding written exam before “graduating” and joining the church.

The church has denied previous reports by Christian news organizations describing it as a “brainwashing cult”, calling those accusations “blatant lies” and a plot to rein in its expansion.

‘SECRET HARVESTERS’

All members work as “harvesters” tasked with courting new followers from other churches, dubbed “harvest fields”, former members said.

“It may appear Christian, but is actually completely different. They revere founder Lee Man-hee as a saviour, like Jesus,” said Lee Duck-sure, a Christian pastor who runs a counseling center in Seoul for former members of Shincheonji.

South Koreans vented anger after an official at a Daegu public health center that carries out virus tests continued to work even after he was told to get tested. He revealed he was a member of the Daegu Shincheonji church only after the test showed he was infected, Daegu officials said.

But health officials and experts cautioned the blame should not be focused on the church and its believers, saying they were also victims.

KCDC is also looking into links between the church and a hospital in nearby Cheongdo County, which reported the second-highest number of patients in the country with more than 110.

The county is a holy site for Shincheonji believers as the birthplace of Lee, and recently a funeral for his older brother was held at that hospital.

On a recent visit, the Daegu church was shuttered and silent, surrounded by empty streets and closed stores. Someone had thrown eggs at the front gate of the building.

Son, who did not want to give her full name and lives in the neighborhood, said many believers, especially young women, have moved to live near the church, and several restaurants are run by members.

Doo Song-Ja, 64, said she had not heard from her daughter since 2015, when she joined the church.

“I’m so worried because so many Shincheonji followers are testing positive but I don’t know where she is,” said Doo, who said her 33-year-old daughter had sued her for “forcible confinement” for trying to keep her home. “I just hope she is OK.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Hyun Young Yi; Additional reporting by Chaeyoun Won and Soohyun Mah; Editing by Josh Smith, Jack Kim and Gerry Doyle)

Concern over coronavirus spread as cases jump in South Korea, Italy and Iran

By Jane Chung and Emily Chow

SEOUL/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – International concern about the spread of coronavirus outside China grew on Sunday with sharp rises in infections in South Korea, Italy and Iran.

The government in Seoul put the country on high alert after the number of infections surged over 600 with six deaths. A focal point was a church in the southeastern city of Daegu, where a 61-year-old member of the congregation with no recent record of overseas travel tested positive for the virus.

In Italy, officials said a third person infected with the flu-like virus had died, while the number of cases jumped to above 150 from just three before Friday.

Authorities sealed off the worst affected towns and banned public gatherings in much of the north, including halting the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases, to try to contain the biggest outbreak in Europe.

“I was surprised by this explosion of cases,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told state broadcaster RAI, warning that the numbers would likely rise in the coming days. “We will do everything we can to contain the contagion.”

Italian health authorities were struggling to find out how the virus started. “If we cannot find ‘patient zero’ then it means the virus is even more ubiquitous than we thought,” said Luca Zaia, the regional governor of the wealthy Veneto region.

Almost a dozen towns in Lombardy and Veneto with a combined population of some 50,000 have effectively been placed under quarantine.

The European Union said it had confidence in the Italian authorities. “We share concern for possible contagion (but) there is no need to panic,” the bloc’s Economic Affairs Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni told reporters.

Iran, which announced its first two cases on Wednesday, said it had confirmed 43 cases and eight deaths, with most of the infections in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan imposed travel and immigration restrictions on the Islamic Republic.

The virus has killed 2,442 people in China, which has reported 76,936 cases, and has slammed the brakes on the world’s second largest economy. It has spread to some 28 other countries and territories, with a death toll of around two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

“Despite the continuing decline in reported cases from China, the last two days have seen extremely concerning developments elsewhere in the world,” said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Saturday it was worried by the detection of infections without a clear link to China.

‘SEVERE AND COMPLEX’

China, which has seen the vast majority of cases, reported 648 new infections. But only 18 were outside of Hubei province, the lowest number outside the epicenter since authorities began publishing data a month ago and locked down large parts of the country.

An Iraqi medical staff member checks a passenger’s temperature, amid the new coronavirus outbreak, upon his arrival to Shalamcha Border Crossing between Iraq and Iran, February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

“At present, the epidemic situation is still severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage,” President Xi Jinping said.

State run television urged people to avoid complacency, drawing attention to people gathering in public areas and tourist spots without wearing masks.

In South Korea, Catholic churches in Daegu and Gwangju have suspended services and other gatherings, while churches elsewhere saw declines in attendance on Sunday, especially among the elderly.

“If the situation gets worse, I think we’ll need to take more measures,” said Song Gi-young, 53, wearing a face mask at church.

South Korea’s president said raising the disease alert to the highest level, allowing authorities to send extra resources to Daegu city and Cheongdo county, which were designated “special care zones” on Friday.

Health officials reported 169 new infections, bringing the total to 602.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

The potential economic impact of the disease was prominent at a meeting of G20 finance ministers in Riyadh.

The International Monetary Fund’s chief said China’s 2020 growth would likely be lower at 5.6%, down 0.4 percentage points from its January outlook, with 0.1 percentage points shaved from global growth.

Xi highlighted the importance of fighting the epidemic in the capital Beijing, which has recently required people arriving from elsewhere in China to be quarantined at home for 14 days.

He said it would have a relatively big, but short-term impact on the economy and that Beijing would step up policy adjustments to help cushion the blow.

In Japan, where the government is facing growing questions about whether it is doing enough to counter the virus, authorities had confirmed 773 cases by early Sunday evening.

Most of them were from a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo, the Diamond Princess. A third passenger, a Japanese man in his 80s, died on Sunday.

British authorities said four people evacuated from the ship had tested positive for the virus after being flown to Britain.

(Reporting by Emily Chow in Shanghai and Jane Chung in Seoul; Additional reporting by Lushu Zhang in Beijing, Kevin Buckland in Tokyo, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Crispian Balmer in Rome and Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Martin Petty, Philippa Fletcher and Alex Richardson; Editing by Kim Coghill and Frances Kerry)

South Korea city deserted after coronavirus church ‘super-spreader’

y Hyonhee Shin and Ryan Woo

SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) – The streets of South Korea’s fourth-largest city were abandoned on Thursday, with residents holed up indoors after dozens of people caught the coronavirus in what the authorities described as a “super-spreading event” at a church.

The deserted shopping malls and cinemas of Daegu, a city of 2.5 million people, became one of the most striking images outside China of an outbreak that international authorities are trying to prevent from spreading into a global pandemic.

New research suggesting the virus was more contagious than previously thought added to the alarm. And in China, where the virus has killed more than 2,100 people, officials changed their methodology for reporting infections, creating new doubt about data they have been citing as evidence of success in fighting its spread.

Deagu Mayor Kwon Young-jin told residents to stay indoors after 90 people who worshipped at the Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony showed symptoms of infection and dozens of new cases were confirmed.

The church had been attended by a 61-year-old woman who tested positive, known as “Patient 31”. Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described the outbreak there as a “super-spreading event”.

“We are in an unprecedented crisis,” Kwon told reporters, adding that all members of the church would be tested. “We’ve asked them to stay at home isolated from their families.”

Describing the abandoned streets, resident Kim Geun-woo, 28, told Reuters by telephone: “It’s like someone dropped a bomb in the middle of the city. It looks like a zombie apocalypse.”

South Korea now has 104 confirmed cases of the flu-like virus, and reported its first death.

In China, officials have been pointing to evidence that new cases were declining as proof they are succeeding in keeping the virus largely contained to Hubei Province and its capital Wuhan, where the virus initially emerged.

But revisions to their methodology have raised doubts about the data. Under the latest methodology, which excludes chest X-rays, China reported fewer than 400 new cases over the past day, less than a quarter of the number it had been finding in recent days under the previous method.

Only last week, another change in Chinese methodology created an overnight spike of nearly 15,000 new cases, reversing a trend of falling numbers that Chinese officials had previously touted as evidence their disease-fighting strategy was working.

Scientists in China who studied nose and throat swabs from 18 patients infected with the virus said it behaves much more like influenza than other closely related viruses, suggesting it may spread even more easily than previously believed.

In at least in one case, the virus was present even though the patient had no symptoms, suggesting symptom-free patients could spread the disease, they wrote in preliminary findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“If confirmed, this is very important,” said Dr Gregory Poland, a vaccine researcher with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who was not involved with the study.

China has imposed severe controls in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, to halt the spread of the virus, and has taken urgent steps to keep the overall economy from crashing.

On Thursday, its central bank cut a borrowing rate, while the authorities extended an order for businesses in Wuhan to shut down until March 11. Schools in the city, which had been due to re-open on Friday, will also stay shut.

TWO CRUISE SHIP PASSENGERS DIE

Japan reported the deaths of two elderly passengers from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored off Yokohama. They appear to be the first people to have died from the disease from aboard the ship, the biggest cluster of infection outside mainland China with more than 620 cases.

Japan has begun allowing passengers who test negative to disembark from the ship. Hundreds departed on Wednesday and hundreds more were set to leave on Thursday.

The ship was carrying about 3,700 people when quarantined on Feb. 3, about half of them from Japan. Japanese passengers were permitted to go home once cleared to leave; other countries are flying passengers home and keeping them isolated on arrival.

Japan, which is due to host the summer Olympics in July, had faced criticism over its strategy of quarantining people on board the ship. Its National Institute of Infections Diseases published data which it said supported its strategy, showing that the onset of symptoms from confirmed cases had peaked on Feb. 7 and tailed off to zero by Feb. 15.

The NIID report was “very reassuring,” said Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist from Kobe University Hospital who had been one of the harshest critics of the quarantine.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and Ryan Woo in Beijing; Additional reporting by Linda Sieg, Chang-Ran Kim, Akiko Okamoto, Ju-min Park and Daewong Kim in Tokyo, Sangmi Cha in Seoul, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Keith Zhai and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in Vientiane; Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Methodist church plans to split over gay marriage, clergy: church officials

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – The United Methodist Church plans to split into two denominations later this year, church officials said on Friday, a schism that follows years of contention over whether the church should end its ban on gay marriage and ordination of gay clergy.

The plan, if approved at the church’s worldwide conference in Minneapolis in May, would divide the third-largest U.S. Christian denomination into two branches: a traditionalist branch that opposes gay marriage and the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy, and a more tolerant branch that will allow same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy.

The split would affect the denomination globally, church leaders said. The United Methodist Church lists more than 13 million members in the United States and 80 million worldwide.

The U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the nation in 2015, but that decision applies only to civil, not religious, services. Some denominations, including the Episcopal Church and certain branches of Judaism, have sanctified same-sex unions, while others including the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention, have declined to do so.

A council of Methodist bishops in Washington, D.C. called Friday’s move the “best means to resolve our differences.”

New York Conference Bishop Thomas Bickerton, part of the group that drafted the plan, said this was a way to reach an amicable separation.

“The protocol provides a pathway that acknowledges our differences, respects everyone in the process, and graciously allows us to continue to live out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by David Gregorio)

Church nativity scene depicts Holy Family as caged refugees

Church nativity scene depicts Holy Family as caged refugees
By Norma Galeana

CLAREMONT, Calif. (Reuters) – A Methodist church in Southern California has turned a classic Christmas tradition – the Nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus – into a statement about immigration by putting the Holy Family in cages.

The United Methodist Church in Claremont, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, built the display last weekend to draw attention to the plight of migrants and refugees in the United States.

“We don’t see this as political at all, we see this as theological,” said the church’s pastor, Reverend Karen Clark Ristine. “We know that this infant baby Jesus … grew up to be a Christ who calls us to compassion for our neighbor, compassion for one another.”The Nativity display, which was installed Sunday night, shows the Holy family separated in their own cages each topped with barbed wire. The baby Jesus is wrapped in silver Mylar, similar to ones given to migrants at detention centers to use as blankets.

While the church makes no mention of Trump administration policies, some visitors saw it as a slam against the president.

“I think is disgusting. I think it’s political and this is aimed at Trump,” said Tony Papa, who came to the display. “If I were a member of this church, I’d drop out, I really would, it’s very disgusting.”

SANCTUARY STATUTES

President Donald Trump has made cracking down on immigration a central issue of his 2020 re-election campaign. His administration has worked to restrict asylum access in the United States in an effort to curb the number of mostly Central American families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump and his top officials have argued that most migrants travel to the United States for economic reasons and lack valid claims to protection.

California, which shares a border with Mexico, has adopted “sanctuary” statutes that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement when it comes to rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants.

 

Irene Reyes, a tourist from Arizona, stopped by the nativity scene and became emotional as she talked about its message.”That’s what’s actually happening,” she said about the migrant children detained in cages at detention centers along the border earlier this year. “And it’s like it was brought out to the world and then nothing happened.

“And if you think about it now during the holidays, that these kids, sorry, aren’t with their families and what are we going to do about it? … Like we see it and then we close our eyes to it and it’s not right,” Reyes said.

(Reporting by Norma Galeana; writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Michael Perry)

Years after nun’s murder, church activists face threats in lawless Amazon

By Nacho Doce and Pablo Garcia

ANAPU, Brazil (Reuters) – Fourteen years ago, on a dirt road near a remote settlement in northern Brazil, a gunman paid by local cattle ranchers executed a U.S. nun who had spent much of her life fighting to save the Amazon rainforest and advocating for the rural poor.

The 2005 killing of 73-year-old Dorothy Stang, who was shot six times in the chest, back and head, shocked the world.

Her former colleagues, who still live near the town of Anapu in the state of Para where she worked, say the area remains as lawless and as dangerous as ever.

“The people here are eager to plant trees, to preserve the forest, to keep it standing and defend it, even with their lives,” said Sister Jane Dwyer, as she held a photo of her murdered colleague. “Because there are people here who have fled from gunmen and from threats.”

Their situation highlights the problem of policing the vast Amazon, where this year loggers, cattle ranchers, and farmers have been accused of triggering a sharp rise in fires and deforestation.

Dwyer and other nuns have recorded 18 deaths of local subsistence farmers in the region since 2015. They say the farmers were murdered over land disputes and that at least 40 people have left the area after receiving threats.

The Para state attorney general’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the allegations.

The Amazon fires have created a major crisis for far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who reacted with fury to global accusations that he was not doing enough to protect one of the world’s key bulwarks against climate change.

Critics said his election victory emboldened his gun-toting supporters to ignore environmental regulations. He has denied that, but he took office in January vowing to bring progress to the Amazon, and has long criticized indigenous reservations and environmental fines as a brake on development.

Bolsonaro is also a long-time skeptic of non-governmental organizations, including the Roman Catholic church, that work in the Amazon, arguing that they are seeking to curtail Brazil’s sovereignty. When the news of the blazes first broke, he even accused NGOs of starting the fires, without providing evidence.

His approach has caused tensions with global leaders, including Pope Francis. The first Latin American pontiff said this month that rapid deforestation should not be treated as a local issue since it threatened the future of the planet.

Next month, the Vatican will host a synod with bishops and other representatives, including indigenous peoples from across South America. The issue of protecting the Amazon will likely loom large.

‘WE’RE SCARED’

Deep in the rainforest and far away from the corridors of power, protecting the Amazon is a lonely, challenging and increasingly dangerous task, say those at the frontline.

In Anapu, the federal government terminated a contract last month with a local security firm that was designed to provide protection for residents and the surrounding forest from invaders, residents said. The contract was not renewed due to a lack of funding, residents said they were told. INCRA, the government agency involved, did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters. The security contractor referred questions to INCRA.

Vinicius da Silva, 37, who leads an environmental conservation society in a local reserve and said he has faced threats from loggers, decried the lack of support.

“We have no protection,” he said. “We’re scared. We don’t know who comes into the reserve and what they’ll do inside it. We know they’re doing bad things in there, but when we ask the government to help, they come to look at the environmental damage and they say we did it.”

Brazil’s environment ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bolsonaro has said that Brazil, facing a steep budget shortfall after years of recession, does not have the resources to police the vast Amazon.

But Father Amaro Lopes de Souza, who like Stang has fought for landless rights and environmental preservation in the region, said the president had not done enough to protect the people or the forest.

“Those who are destroying the Amazon are the big farms, and it’s those big farmers who made (Bolsonaro) president. Now, they think they can deforest and burn and devour everything,” he said.

(Reporting by Nacho Doce and Pablo Garcia, Writing and additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)