SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has canceled all church meetings in several countries until further notice and closed four temples to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The COVID-19 virus also is disrupting the church’s missionary activities in 14 missions covering at least 17 countries and prompted church leaders Thursday to announce that it has canceled the leadership session of its April general conference.
The church also announced that General Authorities and Area Authorities along with “members of the church living outside the United States are discouraged from traveling to the United States to attend the general conference sessions.”
Congregations in Hong Kong haven’t held worship services in four weeks, one church member said. All church gatherings have been canceled throughout Japan, according to a letter sent to all members there by the church’s Asia North Area presidency.
“Until further notice, all church buildings in Japan will be closed,” the letter said. The presidency encouraged families to meet in their homes in place of Sunday meetings and gave permission for wards and branches to conduct church business online.
The church recently equipped families for such a circumstance. They shortened the Sunday meeting schedule from three hours to two at the start of 2019 and encouraged members to embrace a more home-centered, church-supported approach around a new home-based curriculum launched last year called “Come, Follow Me.”
Japan’s prime minister decided Thursday to close the nation’s public schools for a month. Concerns are growing that the outbreak may jeopardize the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled for July 24 to Aug. 9.
The Iwakuni Military Branch Council, the leadership for a small Latter-day Saint congregation near Hiroshima, plans to meet electronically this Sunday, said Martin Hansen, the branch clerk.
Hansen’s teenaged daughter, Ruth, will continue seminary classes online, which will be the practice for seminary and institute throughout Japan. But Family History centers, distribution centers and all other church offices will close. For Strength of Youth conferences are canceled through March.
Church meetings have been canceled in at least parts of Singapore and Korea, where a missionary reported a congregation held virtual services last Sunday. Meetings also are being limited to one hour or suspended in Mongolia, according to a church statement released Thursday.
“In circumstances where members are unable to gather for worship, they learn, teach and partake of the sacrament as families, as guided by local priesthood leaders,” the church said.
The church announced Thursday it has closed its temples in Fukuoka and Sapporo, Japan. Previously, it had closed the Taipei Taiwan Temple and Seoul Korea Temple. The Hong Kong China Temple and Tokyo Japan Temple already are closed for renovations.
“A large number of temple workers and patrons are from an older demographic, which has a higher susceptibility to complications from the coronavirus,” the church statement said.
Some very limited temple work may continue on a case-by-case basis
“Members who have scheduled living ordinances such as temple sealings for marriage and personal endowments may consult with temple presidencies about making arrangements to perform those ordinances,” according to the Asia North Area presidency letter.
The closures followed the recommendations of local public health agencies fighting the spread of COVID-19, the church said. COVID-19 infections now have been reported in 48 countries.
The church is sending dozens of missionaries home early, including those near the end of their missionary service. Some senior missionaries and young missionaries with chronic health problems will go home early while others will be reassigned temporarily to missions in their home countries.
“Some senior missionaries will continue to support the mission remotely,” the release noted. “Each missionary who returns home will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days following instructions from the World Health Organization and the (U.S.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Last week, the church said it had temporarily halted or limited missionary work in eight missions that cover nine countries — Cambodia, Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.
On Thursday it said it has taken steps to reduce the number of missionaries in six missions in Japan and move those who remain out of cities with the largest threats of infection.
The move applies to two missions based in Tokyo and four others based in Fukuoka, Kobe, Nagoya and Sapporo. The same conditions apply in three missions in Seoul and Busan, South Korea.
Missionaries continue to work and study as best they can. Elder Joseph Seamons, 19, of Pleasant Grove, Utah, told his parents the Seoul South Mission is conducting virtual district and zone meetings.
“The missionaries aren’t supposed to leave the apartment except for exercise and to go shopping,” said his father, Paul Seamons.
All missionaries with fewer than 90 days remaining in their mission were sent home. Seamons had 96 days left and will stay.
Church leaders are postponing the start date of missionaries with calls to serve in Cambodia, Korea, Singapore or Thailand. It is temporarily reassigning those who are at a missionary training center.
Earlier this month, the church transferred or released all 125 of its missionaries serving in Hong Kong due to the coronavirus outbreak. They have begun new assignments in different missions, some in the United States.
The church is following the same plan now in Mongolia. All missionaries not native to the country will transfer temporarily to other missions. Those near the end of their release date will go home early.
Missionaries not released are expected to return to their original missions when the crisis abates.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been carefully monitoring these developments and is taking steps in several areas to provide assistance, help missionaries be safe and effective, address concerns regarding member safety and plan for upcoming events,” the church’s statement said.