RESTRICTIONS that had been lifted are being reimposed on church services across the Continent, as governments seek to contain an upsurge in the Covid-19 pandemic.
In France, one of the worst-affected countries, a tiered alert system similar to Britain’s was introduced last weekend. There is now a ban on gatherings of more than ten, and face masks must be worn outdoors in Paris, Lyon, and other cities.
A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in France, Vincent Neymon, said that mass attendance had dropped by 40 per cent, resulting in a loss of €60 million in church income. The Archbishop of Paris, the Most Revd Michel Aupetit, has launched a daily memorial service for victims, and bishops have urged compliance with new restrictions.
In Spain, which had registered 308 infections per 100,000 inhabitants by early October, a 15-day state of emergency was declared in Madrid, restricting church attendance to one third of normal capacity.
Although places of worship can admit larger congregations in other regions, local spikes have been reported, and several Roman Catholic convents have been quarantined in Seville after most of their nuns tested positive for the virus.
In Italy, one of the countries worst hit economically, the Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, ordered a ban on sports events and parties and also restricted the hospitality industry, but imposed no immediate restrictions on churches.
The Vatican, however, imposed a face-mask requirement on Monday, after several Swiss Guards were diagnosed with Covid-19.
In Germany, which has reported fewer than 10,000 deaths since March, public gatherings have been limited to 50, and Christmas markets have been cancelled, although church organisers say that the annual Kirchentag festival will go ahead in Frankfurt next May.
Germany’s federal Health Minister, Jens Spahn, said last week that church services could continue if coronavirus rules were complied with, although Chancellor Angela Merkel was set to discuss tighter restrictions with 16 state premiers on Wednesday. The country’s 20 regional Evangelical Churches and 27 Roman Catholic dioceses are responsible for safety measures in their own areas, and have urged observance of government directives.
In the Netherlands, which this week reported 364 infections per 100,000 inhabitants, new restrictions were announced on 29 September, as church leaders applied a new public-gathering limit of 30 to religious services.
All governments stepped up restrictions after the World Health Organization (WHO) referred to 700,000 new cases across Europe last week: a 34-per-cent rise since the end of September.
Although the reported upsurge is widely attributed to increased testing, the WHO said that deaths had also risen 16 per cent in a week, bringing rates to their highest since the start of the pandemic last winter.
In Eastern Europe, the government of Slovakia has banned church services in an effort to contain the virus, although the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference insisted that there was insufficient evidence to support the move, and urged the Prime Minister, Igor Matovic, in an open letter, on Tuesday, to reconsider.
Church leaders in the Czech Republic said that online services would resume this Sunday; a state of emergency on Monday reduced congregations from 100 to just ten.
The RC Bishop of Plzen, the Rt Revd Tomáš Holub, warned in a message on Twitter, however, that Czech Christians had “many reservations” about government handling of the latest crisis, and said that “strong criticisms” would be merited once the current upsurge eased.
Churches remain open in Poland, although the country’s Roman Catholic leaders have urged priests to exercise “vigilance and responsibility” as infection rates rise.
The secretary-general of the Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Artur Mizinski, tested positive after a plenary last week, together with two bishops from the southern Opole diocese, while an outbreak was also confirmed among Pauline monks at the Jasna Góra national sanctuary.
In Croatia, Archbishop Marin Barišic, of Split-Makarska, also tested positive, as face masks were required at all religious gatherings.
Among Orthodox leaders, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow was forced to quarantine after being in contact with Covid-carriers, but was cleared of the virus last Saturday. Patriarch Daniel of Romania condemned a government decision to restrict an annual pilgrimage at Iasi to local residents, branding the move “disproportionate, discriminatory, and taken without consultation”.
Measures taken by European governments parallel those in the UK, where government guidelines on places of worship were updated on 8 October.
In Ireland, all church services have been banned since 7 October, although places of worship remain open for private prayer, and up to 25 people are allowed at funerals and weddings.
The weekly The Irish Catholic said that church leaders had requested a meeting with the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, “in a bid to lift the ban”, as parishes had “worked tirelessly to ensure protocols like sanitising and physical-distancing were rigidly adhered to” since churches had been allowed to reopen at the end of June.