Special Report: Five days of worship that set a virus time bomb in France | Reuters

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Paris (Reuters)-From the stage of the evangelical church, the leader of the gospel choir started a night of prayer and preaching: "We want to celebrate the Lord! Are you happy tonight?"

"Yes!" On February 18, hundreds of people gathered in the Christian Open Door Church yelled. Some of them participated in thousands of events and attended the week-long Mulhouse gathering. Mulhouse is a city with 100,000 people on the border between France, Germany and Switzerland.

For many members of this global flock, the annual celebration is the highest point of the church calendar.

This time, someone in the congregation was carrying the coronavirus.

The local government said that the prayer meeting kicked off the largest COVID-19 cluster in France so far, which is one of the worst-hit countries in Northern Europe. There are approximately 2500 confirmed cases related to it. Worshipers in the church unintentionally brought diseases caused by the virus to Burkina Faso in West Africa, Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea, Guyana in Latin America, nuclear power plants in Switzerland and France, and workshops of one of Europe's largest car manufacturers.

A few weeks later, Germany partially closed its border with France, suspending the Free Action Agreement that had been in place for the past 25 years. Two people familiar with the German decision told Reuters that the church group was a key factor. Church officials told Reuters that since then, 17 members of the congregation have died from complications related to the disease.

Other religious gatherings have also been linked to the spread of the virus: A large church in South Korea has caused more than 5,000 cases there. This story was told to Reuters by members of the Christian Open Door Church and officials involved in the response to the epidemic, and proved the speed and ferocity of the coronavirus infection. While public health managers are still preparing for the coronavirus, the disease is working on its own, unrelenting schedule-the schedule has quickly exceeded any measures they can take.

When believers gathered in the church on a sunny Tuesday night, an old shopping center was transformed into a 2500-seat auditorium, and the disease seemed remote. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 12 confirmed cases in France. There is no one in Mulhouse.

Like the governments of other Nordic countries, France does not impose any restrictions on large conferences. There is no alcohol gel for the congregation to clean their hands, no elbow bumps instead of shaking hands.

"At the time, we saw COVID as something out of reach," said Jonathan Peterschmitt, the son of the chief pastor and grandson of the church founder. His son and a church spokeswoman said his father Samuel could not be interviewed because he had been infected with the virus.

On February 29, the day after the first case related to the church was determined, public health officials followed regular procedures and tracked people who were in contact with the carrier to stop the spread. Using the list provided by the church (with full cooperation from public health officials), they first contacted the person who staffed the children’s nursery during the gathering.

At this time, the health inspector realized that they were too late. Michel Vernay, an epidemiologist at the French national public health agency in eastern France, said that some nursery staff have become ill.

"We are at a loss," Vernay said. "We realized there was a time bomb in front of us."

"Spiritual recharge"

Among the congregation was local Elie Widmer, a 37-year-old manager of a house construction company. His parents were members of the church, which was founded in 1966 by the French shopkeeper Jean Peterschmitt. His wife unexpectedly cured her illness and accepted the gospel.

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Widmer said that he left the church when he was a teenager, but returned. He hopes to spend the whole year at the party in Mulhouse. He said: "That week you felt special energy. For a week, you stopped everything to recover spiritually." As the drummer of the church orchestra, he Participate every week.

From further afield is Antoinette, a 70-year-old grandmother who lives in Corsica in the Mediterranean. For her, gatherings are part of a 25-year tradition.

Antoinette and five other women went to worship at the Bethel Evangelical Church in Ajaccio, the capital. The condition of her speech was that she had not been fully identified, and that believers were insulted by people outside the church for spreading the virus.

Antoinette suffers from chronic lung disease and requires regular treatment. When these women flew out of Corsica on February 16, they looked forward to combining evangelical workshops with tour shops.

"We know nothing," she said from Ajaccio's house. "We did not consider this epidemic."

Neither did Mamadou Karambiri. He took an Air France flight from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport on February 14.

He is the pastor of his church in Africa and the co-founder of an organization called "International Evangelical Mission Center-African Internal Affairs Corps". Karambiri is a glamorous speaker with the power of white hair. He is the star preacher of this conference.

His church is a warehouse-style building that occupies a block in Ouagadougou. According to a believer, the church can hold 12,000 people. A huge white cross stands on the red muddy street outside. Across the road is a studio that broadcasts the preaching of the pastor to the believers sitting on the blue plastic chairs through TV.

Aristide A. Ouedrago, a spokesperson for Karambiri, said that Karambiri went to Mulhouse with his wife and a bodyguard. The pastor refused to be interviewed for this story through his secretary.

Ouedrago said he believed that the virus was not in France when Karambiri was traveling, even though there were actually 12 cases.

"Petri Dish"

In Mulhouse, the Christian Open Door Church stands opposite a rotisserie. Above the parking lot is a four-story white metal cross.

Health officials said that there were two other children who were still gathered in the church. Their mother was already sick before the incident. The mother stayed at home, but their grandfather took the children away-the older one was five years old and one year younger.

French public health official Vernay said that these children and their mothers will be tested positive for coronavirus in the future, making their mothers a potential source of the disease. For public health officials, it is not clear where Vernay's mother, who did not want to be identified, was infected.

This week’s schedule includes gospel choir performances, group prayers, singing, preachers’ preaching, workshops, and testimonies from those who say that God has cured the disease.

The founder’s son, Jonathan Peterschmitt, said at home that the most attended meetings can accommodate up to 2500 people, and the number of participants is not less than 1,000. Many people come here to spend a few hours day after day. He said: "So we stayed in the same petri dish for a week."

Church spokesperson Nathalie Schnoebelen said that by the end of the meeting on February 21, no one had reported flu-like symptoms. At that time, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in France remained stable at 12.

In late February, drummer Widmer began to feel unwell. His wife, three children and his mother-in-law are also sick.

On March 3, WHO recorded 91 new COVID-19 cases in France, bringing the country's total to 191. The church posted on its Facebook page that the church should contact the doctor when it found the infected woman and her two children.

Widmer dialed number 15, which is the emergency medical service in France. There are not enough test suites to test him. But the doctor diagnosed the coronavirus and ordered him to be isolated from his family.

Within three days, he developed fever and severe headache, and lost his sense of taste and smell. He said he was not particularly worried: his family members had mild symptoms. He has since recovered but is still in self-isolation.

The virus spread through the family of the founder of the church. About a dozen members are now recovering.

A few miles across the border, German officials are watching increasingly vigilantly.

They received a report from the Robert Koch Institute, the German national public health agency, which listed eastern France along with China’s Hubei Province, Iran, Italy, and North Gyeongsang Province as the world’s four high-prevalence coronaviruses. Area. Daegu City, where the Korean church broke out. By March 11, the total number of COVID-19 in France at the WHO had jumped to 1,774, with 33 deaths.

According to official data, about 45,000 French workers commute to Germany every day-about one-fifth of them come from the Mulhouse region. Most of the jobs are in Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s affluent industrial area, where car manufacturers Porsche and Mercedes-Benz live. Europa-Park is a theme park on the Rhine River in Germany and is the main employer of French employers.

After attending the party, a worker from the Fessenheim nuclear power plant near Mulhouse in France tested positive. A representative of the power company said that the power plant’s operator, EDF (EdF), ordered the other 20 companies to self-quarantine at home, but their operations were not disturbed. Another person attending the party worked at the Peugeot Citroen factory on the edge of Mulhouse; people familiar with the matter said that person was also infected.

German officials in Baden-Württemberg decided to take action to impose restrictions on cross-border movement.

The French government asked Berlin for an explanation. On March 16, German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a speech to French President Emmanuel Macron. A German government official gave a brief introduction on the conference call. They talked about the clusters in eastern France and the dangers of commuters. They then agreed to close the border and prohibit the passage of freight vehicles and people other than those on important trips. A French official confirmed the content of the discussion.

The police showed up at the previously unmanned border post and asked the car driver to ask his employer for documents proving the importance of travel. The cargo truck has been backed up.

But the disease has come out. The Swiss Federation of Evangelical Churches stated on its website that Swiss residents who attended the meeting brought the virus back to the evangelical community near Lausanne. The Public Health Department of French Guiana said that they found five people who went to the rally and also tested positive.

After attending a church meeting and returning to his home in Corsica, Antoinette felt the effects of the weather.

She attributed this to travel and continued to meet with other church members in Ajaccio. On March 2, nine days after returning home, she received a call from Mulhouse describing the epidemic there.

She was hospitalized overnight, was tested, and became one of the first COVID-19 cases on the French island of Corsica on March 4. She has been in self-isolation since then, and her church has suspended services. As of March 27, 263 people on Corsica were infected with the coronavirus, and 21 of them died.

On March 16, Antoinette said: “People are pointing the finger at me. They need a scapegoat.” She said that some people outside the circle expressed doubts about evangelical Christians and accused her of bringing the virus into Corsica. Jonathan Peterschmitt, the son of Pastor Mulhouse, said that other people in the congregation were verbally attacked by strangers for spreading the infection, and now they are afraid to reveal their identity.

As of March 20, France had received more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19. About a quarter are in Great Este, including Mulhouse. Local public health official Vernay said that "the vast majority" of them can be traced back to churches.

Since the region has more severe cases than intensive care beds, some patients have been helicoptered to Switzerland, Germany and Luxembourg. The French military has established a field hospital in a green metal tent.

Pastor Karambiri and his wife were at their home in Ouagadougou. After becoming ill on March 1, they went to a local clinic, tested positive and isolated themselves until March 20.

At the end of the self-set quarantine period, he broadcasted a message to his followers in a video posted on the organization's Facebook page. He was sitting on the sofa, his Bible was on his lap, and his wife was next to him. He told them about the infection.

He said that the coronavirus is "a Satanic plan that was conceived a long time ago to destroy the world. But God is watching us and he will lead people out."

Tangi Salaun in Paris; additional reporting by Gilles Gillaume, John Irish, Richard Lough, Michel Rose and Bate Felix in Paris, Paul Ortoli in Corsica, Denis Balibouse in Mulhouse, Henry Wilkins in Ouagadougou and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Kristen ·Written by Christian Lowe; Edited by Sara Ledwith

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