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Churches appealing for concessions for unvaccinated worshippers from new rules

At least two religious organisations are appealing to the authorities to make concessions for those who remain unvaccinated ahead of the expansion of vaccination-differentiated safe management measures (VDS) from Feb 1.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) said on Dec 14, 2021,that all events, regardless of size, must implement VDS from Feb 1 in order to proceed - a change from the current rule that gives concessions to events below 50 people.

This means only those who are fully vaccinated, are medically ineligible for Covid-19 vaccines, or have recovered from the disease, as well as children aged 12 and below can attend events such as like congregational and worship services.

From Feb 1, VDS will also be expanded to cover more settings, including institutes of higher learning (IHLs), which will affect part-time students and visitors who wish to enter their campuses.

On Sunday (Jan 16), a Catholic church - the Church of St Bernadette in Zion Road - posted on its Facebook page that Archbishop William Goh and the Archdiocesan Covid-19 task force have been engaging the authorities over the past months to communicate their position that all parishioners have the right to worship, regardless of their vaccination status.

"The archdiocese is seeking allowance that we continue to have masses for the unvaccinated in a separate setting solely for them where they do not mix with the vaccinated," said the Facebook post.

"(Pending) the decision, the authorities have allowed the booking of masses for the unvaccinated and the vaccinated to continue as normal for the month of February," it added.

When contacted on Monday, the Archdiocese did not address the appeal and said it did not have an update on the latest VDS rules for religious organisations.

Separately, National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) general secretary Rev Dr Ngoei Foong Nghian told The Straits Times on Monday that the council has appealed to the authorities to allow unvaccinated worshippers to continue to attend worship services.

"We recognise that some have valid reasons for not being vaccinated," said Rev Ngoei, who added that "churches are committed to encourage Christians to be vaccinated for the well-being of everyone".

"NCCS looks forward to some positive news from the authorities."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) told ST on Tuesday that discussions between religious organisations and the ministry were ongoing.

Venerable Seck Kwang Phing, president of Singapore Buddhist Federation, said they will not be appealing against the Feb 1 rules.

Currently, those entering Buddhist temples are required to be fully vaccinated, and those who are not will have to participate in live-streamed prayers at home.

The unvaccinated who want to enter templeshave to show proof of medical exemption. They must also go for pre-event testing at their own cost, but this will no longer be permitted from Feb 1.

Venerable Seck said it is important to allow only the vaccinated to enter temples as many devotees are elderly, and getting vaccinated is part of the devotees' social responsibility to protect those around them.

Chairman of the Sikh Advisory Board Malminderjit Singh said some of its gurdwaras are already not open to the unvaccinated.

Mr Singh said: "Some gurdwaras have advised unvaccinated congregation members to tune in online while other gurdwaras have explicitly requested for only vaccinated individuals to attend prayer services in person.

"Congregation members have respected this request."

ST has also contacted the Hindu Endowment Board (HEB) and The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) for comment.

Currently, only the fully vaccinated, recovered and medically ineligible people or children aged 12 or below can book slots at mosques that offer prayers for more than 50 congregants.

Unvaccinated individuals can only do so at the six single-zone mosques.

Unvaccinated worshippers who currently wish to visit the four Hindu temples managed by HEB - including Sri Sivan Temple in Geylang East and Sri Vairavimada Kaliamman Temple - can do so only on specific days.

Mr Dominic Chan, a vaccinated Catholic, told ST he knows unvaccinated people of the same religion who are sad to not get the same freedom to worship only because of their vaccination status.

The 41-year-old lawyer said: "While they can understand the need to protect the vulnerable, such VDS make no distinction for common Covid risk factors like age or pre-existing conditions.

"It is a very painful experience to not be allowed to partake in worship, which has been a very important lifeline through this difficult pandemic period, especially when there is already a toll on mental health."

Ahead of the Feb 1 rule changes, the Ministry of Education (MOE) updated its website on Wednesday to note that they will not affect full-time students pursuing Nitec/Higher Nitec, diploma or undergraduate degree qualifications to minimise disruptions to their studies.

But it added that to safeguard the campus population, and as part of national vaccination efforts, all other students such as those on part-time programmes, and visitors will need to be fully vaccinated to enter IHL campuses from Feb 1.

ST has contacted various universities and polytechnics for comment.

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