SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Thursday that it has postponed a key April meeting of its top global leaders because of the spread of the coronavirus, and said it is discouraging its many members who live outside the U.S. from coming to Utah for much larger church event that same week.
The leadership meeting brings together about 300 leaders in the faith from the U.S. and other countries who gather behind closed doors to discuss church policies, sometimes leading to major public announcements about decisions made in the sessions. It was scheduled for April 1-2 in Salt Lake City, but has been postponed to Oct. 1-2, the faith said in a statement.
The larger church event planned for that weekend of April 4-5 is still on, but not for church members living outside the U.S. because the faith does not want its international members to travel to it for fear of spreading the COVID-19 virus.
More than half of the faith's 16 million members live outside the United States and the larger gathering is attended by nearly 100,000 people who converge on Utah to listen to speeches by the faith's leaders that are broadcast live around the world.
The decision to postpone the meetings and discourage international travel came after warnings from governments and health organizations, the faith known widely as the Mormon church said in the statement.
“We wish to be good global citizens and do what we can to limit the spread of this disease,” the faith said. "We also want to relieve concerns of our leaders, members, and their families related to the uncertainties of travel at this time.”
The moves mark the latest steps taken by the faith as it responds to the coronavirus outbreak.
The church has temporarily closed temples in Tapei, Taiwan, Seoul, Korea, and in the Japanese cities of Fukuoka and Sapporo. Temples in Tokyo and Hong Kong were already closed for renovations. Temples are used by members of the faith for the most sacred ceremonies such as weddings and baptisms for the dead. Regular worship services are held at different churches.
Worship services have been halted or suspended in Hong Kong, Mongolia, Korea and Japan, the church said Thursday.
Church officials say they are are closely monitoring how to best to keep their 65,000 missionaries safe, especially in Asian countries hit hard by the virus. Earlier this month, the faith transferred 113 missionaries from its Hong Kong mission to other places.
Missionaries who were set to go to Japan, Cambodia, Korea, Singapore and Thailand will either postpone or be sent to another country and those nearing the end of their time will be sent home early, the church said Thursday. Missionaries in Mongolia who aren't from there will be transferred elsewhere.
Missionaries already in these countries are being told to mostly stay inside, stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from people when they go outside and to do their proselytizing by phone or online.
Any missionary returning home from these Asian countries will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days, per instructions from the World Health Organization, the faith said.
In the faith’s home base of Utah, where nearly two-thirds of the state belongs to the religion, health officials say they haven’t had any cases yet, despite investigating 12 potential infections. They do expect the virus to come to the state eventually, but say they’re ready.
“There is potential for significant disruption to our daily lives in the near future,” said Utah state epidemiologist Angela Dunn.
The faith's young men serve as missionaries for two years while young women serve for 18 months. The missions are voluntary but considered rites of passage.
Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.