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Orthodox Churches celebrate Easter in Covid-19’s shadow

17 April 2020

It will be a victory if people become closer to God after the pandemic, says Patriarch


Muncipal workers in protective suits disinfect St Petka’s, Varna, in Bulgaria, last Friday

Muncipal workers in protective suits disinfect St Petka’s, Varna, in Bulgaria, last Friday

EASTERN ORTHODOX leaders in Europe have supported government measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, although some have criticised restrictions on public worship before the Orthodox Easter this coming Sunday.

In Russia, where President Putin’s government agreed to cut church gas prices during the crisis, Patriarch Kirill told Christians that the virus was a reminder of the need for self-criticism over against the “tragic over-evaluation of human possibilities”.

“If we become closer to God after overcoming this sorrow, we will have won a victory,” the Patriarch said at a Palm Sunday liturgy in Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow. “The development of human civilisation, especially over the last decade, has sought to satisfy the unrestrained desire to have more, consume more, and want more. All great ideals, noble and glorious, including faith in God, have been relegated by many to life’s periphery.”

Besides supervising penitential street-processions by Orthodox clergy, Patriarch Kirill made a tour of the city’s 70-mile circular motorway, with a paramilitary police escort, to invoke divine protection with prayers and relics, while several Orthodox metropolitans conducted helicopter “air processions” over their dioceses.

The Russian Moscow Patriarchate said that Holy Week and Easter services would be conducted without parishioners in the capital, after an Orthodox priest died and about 40 people were taken ill with the virus.

In neighbouring Belarus, however, President Oleksandr Lukashenka said that he would personally attend Easter services. His government trusted Orthodox clergy to take the “necessary precautions”.

“Catholics have already celebrated Easter, and those who went to church, as is their right, did so with great care,” President Lukashenka told journalists on Monday. “We are not blocking the way to temples or forbidding anyone from going to church — this is my strict order.”

In Greece, where at least 100 deaths were reported by last weekend, Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens urged his brother bishops to donate half their earnings for ventilators and life-saving equipment. He told Christians in an Easter message that the pandemic had left many wondering whether “everything would need rewriting from scratch.”

The Greek Church’s governing Holy Synod said that Easter would be marked “on a small scale behind closed doors”, and that public celebrations would be transferred, instead, to Tuesday 26 Mary before the eve of Ascension.

PAMetropolitan Varsonofy of St Petersburg and Ladoga (left) before prayers in a helicopter with an icon of the Mother-of-God of Kazan over St Petersburg on 1 April

Greek media, however, said that police had dispersed worshippers at churches in Patras and other towns, and that Metropolitan Seraphim of Kythira had been detained during a Marian devotion after denouncing the “diabolical plague” of worship restrictions.

Also in Greece, the Orthodox Romfea news agency ran commentaries criticising the lockdown and accusing Church leaders of failing to provide spiritual guidance. George Alevras, a monk from Mount Athos, which was badly damaged by early April storms, told the agency that the order to “close churches without the Easter mysteries” had originated from Western politicians — “those who built a Europe of crusaders, wars, memoranda, enslavement, economic measures, misery, and lies.”

Every European state has reported Covid-19 infections, and the number of cases is rising in the continent’s 11 predominantly Orthodox countries. In Bulgaria, Patriarch Neophyte reversed his instruction, given in mid-March, that churches should stay open and resist “the pretext of coronavirus infection”, and called instead for state-of-emergency restrictions to be observed.

The Synod in Georgia said that prohibiting church attendance was “an unjustified offence against God”, adding that “far more people” were currently “crowding into public transport, pharmacies, and grocery stores”.

In Ukraine, where government officials predicted that 200,000 workers could attempt to return from neighbouring countries for Easter, the Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, which is in conflict with a newly created independent denomination, accused opponents of using the Covid-19 crisis against it, as its Monastery of the Caves in Kiev was ordered on Monday to close after large-scale infections.

Churches have remained open for private prayer and online services under a Ukrainian government decree, although the country’s Council of Churches and Religious Organisations warned last week that police and local authorities were violating religious freedom by “interpreting quarantine restrictions differently”.

Meanwhile, Orthodox leaders in Serbia said that services would continue, subject to safety steps, and cautioned that the pandemic was being used as an “unreasonable and malicious” pretext for preventing communion.

“The Orthodox Church is being attacked,” the Serbian Holy Synod noted in a communiqué. “They accuse us of violating the binding instructions of the state authorities, and this is a pure lie, since the state does not, and cannot, deal with the content and manner of conducting church services.”

In a message to the world’s 260 million Orthodox Christians in late March, the 80-year-old Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, said that all Churches should be grateful to the front-line medical professionals who were tackling the pandemic, and urged Christians to comply with instructions.

“Our states, governments, and health authorities have primary responsibility for overcoming this crisis; we might describe them as battlefield commanders against an invisible but well-known enemy,” the Patriarch, who is recognised as honorary Primate among 14 main Orthodox Churches, said.

“Some have felt [that] these drastic measures undermine or harm our faith. However, what is at stake isn’t our faith, but our faithful.”

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