SALT LAKE CITY — In a poetic plea for help, an Italian Latter-day Saint leader called for a national fast to begin Wednesday and invited all who love Italy to join in fasting and prayer for it as COVID-19 spreads across the northern part of the country.

The Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responsible for Italy, Elder Alessandro Dini-Ciacci sent the request to Italy’s president and national media before the government shut down travel for all of Italy’s 60 million people late Monday. The prime minister announced a countrywide ban on all public meetings, the BBC reported, in a country that has more cases of the coronavirus than any country but China.

“It may seem to some that our faith is a small thing against the greatness of the enemy of these days, the Goliath we all have come to know as the COVID-19 coronavirus,” the church leader wrote in Italian. “But the Scriptures remind us that David, with means the world would regard as improbable, ‘with a slingshot and with a stone ... smote the Philistine.’” He provided a translation to the Deseret News.

His letter, posted on the church’s Italy newsroom website, asked for people to fast by skipping dinner on Wednesday and breakfast on Thursday.

“In addition to obeying the provisions of our competent civil authorities and continuing to trust in God, I invite all those who are physically able to do so to join in a fast for the COVID-19 emergency” including “every member of the church in Italy who is physically able to do it and anyone who lives in Italy or loves Italy, whatever their religious belief or political affiliation ...,” he added.

Meanwhile, the virus continued to affect the church around the world. The faith’s news website noted Monday that it now has closed the Vancouver British Columbia Temple, marking nine temples closed in seven countries.

Italy’s Latter-day Saint stake presidents, who each oversee a group of congregations, discussed the outbreak that has caused nearly 8,000 infections and 463 deaths in Italy. Restrictions on meetings are expected to last at least until April 3.

“We expressed a desire to unite all people in prayer and fasting,” said Verona Italy Stake President Andrea Cordani, whose congregations are right in the middle of the hot spot. “Elder Dini-Ciacci superbly put this plan together. I am touched and excited to see our brothers and sisters, of any faith, coming together. I do hope they hear our voice and decide to join us.”

Elder Alessandro Dini-Ciacci and his wife Sara in Rome on March 9, 2019. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Elder Dini-Ciacci told the Deseret News on Monday that the church’s leaders in Italy followed the government’s mandates by canceling all church meetings in the country.

The government had mandated that houses of worship can open only if a minimum distance of 1 meter can be guaranteed between individuals. The new declaration on public meetings appear to mean all gatherings for worship are prohibited.

Meanwhile, the Latter-day Saint Charities Friendship Centre in the heart of Rome closed Monday until further notice. The center is a collaboration between Latter-day Saint Charities and Jesuit Refugee Services, providing courses in cooking, piano, computers, first aid, and beginning and intermediate English and Italian for hundreds of refugees each week.

The Deseret News visited and reported on the center in March 2019.

A refugee Catholic nun practices piano at St. Paul’s Within the Walls Episcopal Church in Rome on Thursday, March 7, 2019. Piano lessons are among the courses provided at the Latter-day Saint Charities Friendship Centre in the church, part of a partnership with Jesuit Refugee Services. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to open again soon,” the center said on its Facebook page. “Everyone stay safe and healthy!”

On Sunday in Italy, attendance increased for virtual worship services held by some Latter-day Saint congregations, based on information individuals and families provided the church about their own homes. The Bolzano Ward in the Verona Stake averages 94 people for sacrament meeting, but 122 yesterday watched from home for a meeting streamed over the internet, Bishop Paolo Marcantonio said in an interview via Zoom video conference.

The only people who attended the meeting in person were Marcantonio, the presidents of the Trento and Bressanone branches and a technician. All others watched the meeting on YouTube. Including members of the two branches, a total of 161 people attended the barebones virtual meeting, which began with prelude music Marcantonio streamed from his iPad.

“We sorely missed the music,” he said.

Priesthood holders were authorized to administer the sacrament in their homes. Some gathered to take the sacrament to other homes, but that practice will not be possible next week due to the government’s guidelines, Cordani said.

Marcantonio said some members are worried about the virus but their spirit and morale is high. He looked forward to Wednesday’s fast.

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“I really like the ability to build on what we have in common with other Christian religions and also non-Christian religions,” he said. “The other part I really like is that while we are listening to a lot of practical information on how to behave, the fast puts a focus on the spiritual side of our lives.”

“We sure missed associating with other members,” Elder Dini-Ciacci said, “but we did not feel a lack of the spirit of the Lord and were able to renew our covenants with the Lord and commitment to staying faithful.”

Elder Dini-Ciacci asked people to use Psalm 46 as a source of peace “in these turbulent days” and invited them to fix in their minds the words, “Be still, and know that I am God”.

He also asked those who fast to pray often, asking God to inspire and guide national and local government leaders, protect health care workers and comfort those who are ill or have lost a loved one.

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