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European churches face second Easter with restrictions

01 April 2021


The full moon over St Isaac’s Cathedral, St Petersburg, on Monday

The full moon over St Isaac’s Cathedral, St Petersburg, on Monday

CHURCHES across the Continent are experiencing a second year of impaired Easter celebrations, after restrictions were re-imposed to counter a new spike in coronavirus infections.

In France, Spain, and Italy, churches have stayed open for public worship, subject to sanitisation rules agreed with governments. The rules are strictest in districts where full lockdowns and curfews are in force (News, 12 March).

In these countries and elsewhere, Roman Catholic leaders have urged parishes to comply with a directive from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, reapplying March 2020 guidelines for public and online worship.

In Germany, a lockdown from Maundy Thursday to Easter Monday was announced on Tuesday of last week, but revoked as a “mistake” just a day later by the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, after criticism from Churches and the country’s federal Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer.

The Bishop of Limberg and President of the RC Bishops’ Conference, Dr Georg Bätzing, said that his Church had not been consulted about the restrictions, which would have required all Easter services to be held online.

The Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, said that the “far-reaching corona lockdown over Easter” had also come as “complete surprise” to Protestant leaders. No explanation had been given why “tried and tested hygiene protection measures” applied by all regional Churches “should no longer be sufficient”.

In a message on its website, the EKD said that Easter 2021 would still “only be celebrated to a very limited extent”, even after Chancellor Merkel’s U-turn, and that this made it all the more important for the festival to be “a time of consolation and hope”.

Some German parishes have provided materials for those celebrating Easter at home, including bottles of holy water and phone meditations.

In Austria, services and processions are taking place with face masks and two-metre distancing. The veneration of the Cross will also be allowed on Good Friday, although without physical contact. A quartet of singers is permitted, although church leaders have urged shortened liturgies, held outside where possible, especially in the worst-affected areas of Vienna, Burgenland, and Lower Austria.

In Slovakia, however, where a total ban on public worship since January was extended for a further 40 days on 17 March, church leaders are backing a Constitutional Court appeal by the procurator-general, Maroš Žilinka, after accusing the government under the Prime Minister, Igor Matovič, of ignoring their complaints.

“We decisively oppose this excessive state interference in our country’s religious life, and are convinced it constitutes a disproportionate limitation on religious freedom,” the President of the Slovakian RC Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanislav Zvolenský of Bratislava, said in a statement last weekend.

In Poland, where the coronavirus death rate reached 52,000 this week, and is currently close to twice the European average, the Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, tightened restrictions last weekend, after warning that 70 per cent of hospital beds were full.

Churches have stayed open for Holy Week and Easter, however, subject to numerical limits. The government urged Roman Catholics to confine themselves to celebrating with their immediate families, but did not decree travel restrictions.

In Ukraine, where church members were urged to return to live worship last summer, worshippers have been allowed to choose whether to attend church or follow Easter celebrations on the internet.

Janez Janša’s government in Slovenia ordered churches to close from Maundy Thursday until Monday 12 April, in a lockdown that has left shops and schools padlocked, and pastoral care allowed only in emergencies.

Orthodox Churches following the Julian Calendar will mark Easter on 2 May, and are responding differently to the latest Covid-19 upsurge.

In Romania, where overnight road traffic is banned, places of worship are to remain open, after what a Bucharest Patriarchate spokesman, Vasile Banescu, said had been “an open and honest dialogue” with government officials.

In Greece, where there has been a sharp rise in infections, most churches will be open only for private prayer, with a maximum of 20 people allowed at cathedral liturgies. Loudspeakers are banned, to prevent outdoor congregations.

“We will still make Easter better than last year, while the remaining difficulties will soon be overcome,” the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens, said after meeting government officials last weekend. “This is as long as we stay patient and are not carried away by easy answers.”

The Geneva-based World Council of Churches issued an ecumenical prayer book, and held a week of prayer at the end of March for victims of Covid-19, while the Communion of Protestant Churches in Europe discussed at an online assembly the “creative and impressive solutions” found for lockdown worship, noting that some restrictions were “perceived by many as infringements of religious freedom and civil rights”.

The Pope has led Holy Week services with cardinals, Vatican officials, and selected lay participants only, to comply with Italy’s overnight curfew. He is to deliver his traditional Urbi et Orbi Easter message from St Peter’s Basilica rather than the square.

The Vatican declared itself Covid-free in mid-March, after dispensing 10,000 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccinations to employees and their families. It is also offering doses to homeless people, but denied social-media claims last month that members of staff could lose their jobs if they failed to be vaccinated.

The shrine of Fatima, in Portugal, one of many Marian centres forced to close to pilgrims a year ago, said last week that more than 11 million people had followed its YouTube services during 2020: a 60-per-cent increase on pre-coronavirus figures.

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