AS EUROPEAN governments reimpose restrictions against a winter coronavirus resurgence, church leaders have responded by urging Christians to be vaccinated — in some instances making it mandatory for clergy and parish staff.
A ten-per-cent rise in deaths, especially from the Delta variant, was reported across the Continent in the first week of November, amid World Health Organization warnings that, in Europe, half a million excess deaths could be expected in the coming months.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is already discouraging travel to “red-list” countries, from Belgium to Croatia, while many institutions, including universities, are requiring 3G certificates (vaccinated, recovered, or tested) as a condition for entry.
In Germany, where the new coalition government has hinted at travel curbs for the unvaccinated, the former President of the RC Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, cancelled engagements in mid-November after contracting the virus; Christmas markets in his see city of Munich were also cancelled for the second year running.
The Conference’s current President, the Bishop of Limburg, Dr Georg Bätzing, paid tribute to vaccine researchers and manufacturers, and called on Germans to uphold the principles of “respect, recognition, responsibility, and solidarity” by obtaining jabs.
“It is often not just the big decisions of a few, but the small steps of many that protect and secure the future,” Dr Bätzing told a meeting in Frankfurt.
In Austria, where a lockdown was ordered on Monday for all non-vaccinated over-12s after a doubling of infections, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told national radio that vaccination offered the only escape from a “vicious circle, stumbling from wave to lockdown”.
Although the country’s new Covid-19 Protective Measures Ordinance exempts “gatherings for the practice of religion”, the RC Church tightened its rules in a detailed document last week, making masks mandatory along with new disinfectant and ventilation measures. Anyone conducting a service must now hold a 3G certificate; rules on singing, confessions, and holy communion have been tightened, and social distancing reintroduced.
Religious services are unaffected in several EU countries. In France, where masks became compulsory again on Monday in most primary schools, over-65s will require booster shots to obtain a health pass for restaurants, museums, and other public places. Church services are exempt, however.
Services are also being conducted normally in Portugal and Spain, which have inoculation rates of 80 to 90 per cent, and where almost all Covid-19 restrictions, including health passes, were scrapped this autumn.
They are also unimpeded in Italy, which has some of Europe’s toughest general restrictions: new travel curbs were introduced last weekend.
In Scandinavia, numerical limits were eased on church services this summer, although the Lutheran Church of Sweden urged its communities in September to continue following Public Health Agency instructions.
Dutch churches reapplied restrictions on 10 November, in line with new government curbs, including masks and a 1.5-metre distancing rule for congregations. Hymn-singing is still permitted, however, and material has been sent to parishes urging Christians to turn out for Christmas celebrations.
Expert studies have warned of deepening health inequalities across the EU, inflamed by the pandemic, alongside a rise in domestic violence and abuse. Baptisms, confirmations, and church weddings have plummeted since early 2020.
In Eastern Europe, where vaccine resistance is thought to reflect a lingering post-Communist distrust of government directives, infection rates are high in the Baltic states: Latvia is imposing a fresh lockdown in October.
Although church services are unrestricted in Poland, the Bishops’ Conference in Slovakia urged citizens in a message on Sunday to obtain jabs as “a concrete and mature expression of faith in God”, and called on clergy to help get the message across.
In Ukraine, where fewer than one fifth of the population are fully vaccinated, the Greek Catholic Church opened its Patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, in Kiev, as a vaccination centre on 7 November, and has offered space for beds if hospitals overflow.
Among other predominantly Orthodox countries, hospitals are reported to be inundated in Bulgaria. In Romania, which currently has the world’s highest Covid-19 death rate per capita, the Orthodox archdiocese of Bucharest answered a Health Ministry request for help on 30 October and opened its chapels as temporary mortuaries.
“Life and health are gifts from God which we must cultivate through prayer, humility, and care, strictly following the advice of doctors and sanitary measures determined by the competent authorities,” Patriarch Daniel of Romania said in a sermon.
In Russia, the Covid-19 death rate of an average of 1100 a day has prompted legislation to make vaccinations obligatory for medical staff and teachers. A call by the Orthodox Church’s foreign-relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, for jabs to be made compulsory for priests as well was dismissed by a senior Moscow Patriarchate official, Vladimir Legoyda, who warned that “forms of coercion” would become “a factor of national division”.
In Greece, however, the Orthodox Holy Synod has ordered unvaccinated clergy and staff members to undergo two tests weekly, and is “paternally urging” lay Christians to get tested before coming to services.
From this month, unvaccinated Greek citizens must present a negative test to enter shops, restaurants, and other amenities, while the centre-right government of the Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is considering further measures.
Orthodox church leaders have reacted with firmness. Metropolitan Makarios of Sidirokastro called police to a convent at Serres, in Macedonia, when its nuns failed to observe anti-Covid measures. Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Eleftheroupolis ordered services to be “simplified”, and gave priests one week, from 11 November, to get vaccinated or risk a pay cut and possible removal from office.
The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, has cancelled a late November visit to the monastic community of Mount Athos, after a spike in cases and several deaths among its 2000 monks.
The abbot of Esfigmenou monastery, one of 20 on Mount Athos, condemned pilgrims for using forged vaccination certificates to gain access to the peninsula, and called on Greece’s public prosecutor to intervene against “intolerant fanatics” preaching against the vaccines.
“This coronavirus is a small germ, but it’s humiliated even the great powers of America, Russia, and Germany,” another Greek metropolitan, Theoklitos of Florina, told Orthodox Christians in a Sunday sermon. “That’s why we should all be as careful as possible to ensure this virus isn’t transmitted.”
The Geneva-based Conference of European Churches has published reflections on pastoral and theological challenges posed by the pandemic.
In the most recent reflection, Bishop Jari Jolkkonen, from Finland’s Evangelical-Lutheran Church, said that he and others had ordered pastors to continue conducting parish services, even without congregations, on the grounds that “worship is not a hobby, but God’s command.
“It should be the duty of church authorities, not state officials, to establish restrictions. Of course, churches must exercise this freedom in a responsible way, listening to specialists, and communicating with the authorities.”