By Giff Johnson
A large group of missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints departed the Marshall Islands and Kiribati Saturday on a specially chartered Fiji Airways aircraft - a response to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world.
At least 44 missionaries boarded the flight in Majuro, which followed a similar number getting on the flight in Tarawa, capital of Kiribati.
The flight was reportedly returning the missionaries from the LDS church - also known as Mormons - to the United States.
The LDS operates multiple churches in the Marshall Islands, including two "stakes" on Majuro and Ebeye islands, which require at least 4,000 members each to be formally recognized by the Utah-based church.
The LDS departure sparked an outpouring of comment on social media among Marshall Islanders and local residents, virtually all of it wishing the missionaries a safe trip and hopes for their return in the future.
There are no confirmed Covid-19 cases in the Marshall Islands, making it one of fewer than 20 countries globally that do not yet have the coronavirus.
In an effort to prevent Covid-19 in the country, the Marshall Islands has banned inbound arrivals by air since 8 March. It extended this ban Friday through 5 May.
"These are missionaries who are going home to their families because of the Covid-19 (pandemic)," said LDS church member Hirobo Obeketang, who manages the Marshall Islands Resort, the largest hotel on Majuro.
He said church leaders recently made a decision there would be no activities in church buildings or large gathering areas as a precaution against Covid-19.
"All church activities are made at each family's home (to) coincide with the restriction made world-wide on prevention of spreading of the virus," he said.
Most of the LDS church leaders and missionaries, who spend a year in the islands on mission work for the church, are Americans, although the mission groups included young people from many Pacific islands and countries outside the region.
For some people working in the Marshall Islands, this western Pacific nation seems safer than their own countries.
Last month, RNZ interviewed Laura Freeman, who is from Christchurch, and has lived and worked in the Marshall Islands since 2018.
"At the moment, without Covid-19 here, it just seems really silly for me to leave and go to New Zealand where everything is starting to lock down," Ms Freeman said in the interview.
Some other people working in the Marshall Islands left prior to United Airlines and Nauru Airlines suspending regular service after March 20.
"It has been very difficult to know whether I should stay or leave," said Jeff Fennell, a missionary working in Majuro as a teacher for the Seventh-Day Adventist School.
"The US is urging all citizens around the world to come home and it's been a hard decision.
"I know these (LDS) guys loved the Marshall Islands and I don't think they wanted to leave. They will be missed."
Mr Fennell said he hoped to finish out the school year, which normally wrapped up at the end of May.
Marshall Islands government officials have discussed closure of all schools in the country as a Covid-19 response, but put the plan on hold pending confirmation of a case of Covid-19.
All schools remain in session, although two private schools moved to either add school on Saturdays or extend the school day to 5pm.
Anticipating government may order schools to close, Majuro Baptist Christian Academy and Assumption Schools are aiming to complete the school year a month earlier than usual with the addition of class time each week.
"As nice as it would be to go home, I have really loved becoming part of the Marshall Islands community and I felt like the Lord was calling me to stay and finish the school year with these amazing students," said Mr Fennell.