Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage to go ahead: temple chairman

Taichung's Jenn Lann Temple, CNA file photo.
Taichung's Jenn Lann Temple, CNA file photo.

TAIPEI (CNA) — The Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage, the largest annual religious procession in Taiwan, will still be held this year despite concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, its organizer said Wednesday.

The procession, which lasts nine days, is held yearly to celebrate the birthday of the sea goddess Matsu and features the Matsu statue of Taichung’s Jenn Lann Temple being carried on the shoulders of worshipers throughout central Taiwan.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gather along the more than 340-kilometer route that travels through Taichung, Changhua County, Yunlin County, and Chiayi County to celebrate the occasion and receive blessings from the goddess.

As the novel coronavirus epidemic shows no signs of abating, however, there have been concerns that a religious gathering of this scale could trigger an outbreak, especially as cluster infections linked to churches have popped up in South Korea and Singapore.

Jenn Lann Temple Chairman Yen Ching-piao (顏清標) said Wednesday that after internal discussions on the issue, the temple decided to hold the procession as scheduled from March 19 to March 28 unless the central government instructs otherwise.

Several prominent events that are part of the celebration, however, will be canceled, Yen said, including an outdoor banquet that more than 10,000 people attended last year, a concert and a ceremony held at Fengtien Temple in Chiayi.

Some of the money budgeted for these events will be used to set up inspection stations along the procession route for disease prevention purposes, while another NT$30 million (US$980,700) from the budget will be donated to the Central Epidemic Command Center, Yen said.

One of the main rituals featured in the Matsu Pilgrimage — people weaving under Matsu’s sedan chair or lying down on the ground as it passes over them for good luck — will not be allowed this year, nor will pilgrims be allowed to touch the sedan chair, Yen said.

He suggested that followers of Matsu set up altars in the goddess’ name in their own homes and watch the live stream of the procession to show their gratitude and respect.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare should set up guidelines for temples that are planning to hold religious activities, Yen said, pledging to follow such guidelines should they be issued.

The central government has yet to provide any specific guidance on the pilgrimage.

Deputy Interior Minister Chen Tsung-yen (陳宗彥) would only say Wednesday that his ministry believes that large religious events should be carefully assessed, and that organizers should have backup plans ready if an event needs to be postponed.

On the Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage specifically, Chen said the ministry has communicated with temple officials, who have proposed alternative solutions to certain aspects of the procession, including how they will carry the sedan chair.

Former Health Minister Yang Chih-liang (楊志良), who oversaw prevention efforts against the H1N1 swine flu outbreak while in office in 2009, told CNA Wednesday that because the novel coronavirus spreads mostly through droplet transmission and close contact, adjustments should be made to large scale religious events.

The people who take part in the annual Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage often share meals or even accommodation, Yang said, which definitely increases the odds of becoming infected.

But because there would be a huge backlash if the government were to cancel the pilgrimage, Yang suggested that it go on as scheduled, but on a significantly smaller scale.

Chan Chang-chuan (詹長權), dean of the College of Public Health at National Taiwan University, said Tuesday that unless religious organizations are able to host events with proper prevention measures, they should cancel them whenever possible.

Though the Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage is a significant tradition, the way it is customarily held poses a huge risk, Chan contended.

Many temples across the country host massive celebrations for Matsu’s birthday in March, a phenomenon often described as “Matsu Frenzy.”

Amid fears of the coronavirus outbreak spreading, however, several temples have already announced that they would be canceling or adjusting their plans.

Taipei’s Songshan Ciyou Temple and New Taipei’s Chite Temple have both canceled organized trips for pilgrims; Taichung’s Daya Yongxing Temple has canceled its Matsu Pilgrimage, and Nanyao Temple in Changhua County has shortened its pilgrimage from seven days to two.

Nearly 80 temples in Taoyuan have also collectively decided to either postpone or cancel large gatherings and events.