Philippines observes 'no-contact' Ash Wednesday to beat virus

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Catholic faithful wearing masks has ash sprinkled on their heads rather than drawn as a cross during an Ash Wednesday service in Manila

Filipinos marked Ash Wednesday with a bow and a sprinkling of dust instead of a cross being daubed on their foreheads, as Asia's bastion of Catholicism guarded against the spread of coronavirus.

Leaders of the Philippine church urged priests to adapt the rite in order to reduce the risk of fanning a contagion that has killed over 2,700, mostly in China.

Since the outbreak, which has resulted in three confirmed cases and one death in the Philippines, churches have also discouraged worshippers from holding hands during mass.

"It makes me feel safe," said Wendy Tamidles, a 19-year-old student.

She was among thousands of people, some wearing surgical masks, who lined up at Baclaran church in Manila for services on Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the run-up to Easter, and includes Catholics having crosses drawn in ash on their foreheads.

The Philippines is overwhelmingly Catholic, with some 80 percent of its people said to be believers. Its unique brand of the religion also includes gruesome annual re-enactments of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Local church officials have also "strongly recommended" that Catholics do not kiss or touch the cross during Good Friday services, which is usually common practice.

"We are being cautious so that the coronavirus won't spread," said Victorino Cueto, rector of Baclaran church.

For at least one participant, 62-year-old, Roberto Moreno, the no-touch policy had no impact on the meaning of the day.

"The message is the same: we came from ash and to ash we shall return."