AS THE Delta variant of Covid-19 spreads in Europe, church leaders are backing government vaccination campaigns, while also counselling against coercive measures.
In Italy, where 60 per cent of adults have now received their first dose, all over-12s will require a coronavirus “Green Pass” certificate, as either a printout or smartphone QR code, to enter bars and restaurants, theatres, cinemas, and sports halls from today. While this will apply to church-run facilities, such as museums and wedding reception venues, as well as parts of the Vatican, it will not be required for church services, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, although safety measures adopted in 2020, such as masks and social distancing, still apply at religious events.
In France, the “3G Rule” (from the German for vaccinated, tested, recovered) will be applied from Monday, requiring proof of vaccination, a negative test, or recent recovery, for access to leisure activities and public transport. Church leaders have backed compulsory vaccination for certain groups as a mark of common responsibility, despite widespread protests.
Archbishop Pierre d’Ornellas, however, who handles bioethics for the French Bishops’ Conference, told the La Croix daily that a “more tolerant approach” was needed for those with “concerns and questions” about civil liberties and genetic techniques used in vaccine production.
In Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has voiced concern about a current “decline in vaccination readiness”, the chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, called this week for wider self-help networks to support the families of victims.
The President of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Bishop of Limburg, Dr Georg Bätzing, said that vaccinations should remain an individual decision, but urged Germans to get one as “an expression of solidarity and charity”, to ensure “freedoms laboriously achieved through lockdown restrictions can continue through autumn and winter”.
Germany’s Central Council of Muslims condemned “nonsensical conspiracy theories” in a statement last week, saying that there were “no religious reasons” for refusing vaccination.
In Austria, where St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, is being used as a vaccination centre, social distancing and singing restrictions were relaxed in July, although church leaders have urged worshippers to maintain safety rules in to avoid the application of the “3G rule” to churchgoing.
The RC Church in Poland urged members in April to avoid the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, referring to the use of aborted foetus cells in their manufacture, but said that Christians could still receive them “without moral guilt” if no alternatives were available.
In July, the President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, said that vaccinations offered hope “for the normal functioning of societies”, and reminded Polish citizens of their duty to consider “demands of the common good”.
Several Polish bishops, writing pastoral letters, have called on citizens to receive the vaccine, comparing it to mass TB inoculations after the Second World War, and have encouraged parishes to offer premises for vaccination teams.
The Church of Sweden, still limiting congregations to 50, has also urged members to receive the vaccine. The Church of Denmark gave up requiring masks in June, but reminded Christians in July to “keep an eye out” for possible guideline changes.
In a recent website reflection, the Geneva-based Conference of European Churches said that social distancing had been particularly hard for Orthodox Churches, given their emphasis on “eucharistic community”; this explained why “so many voices” had vehemently criticised government restrictions.
In a mid-July statement, issued at the request of the Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek Orthodox Holy Synod said that medical science was a “gift of the Creator”, and advised church members to ignore social-media posts “lacking scientificity and any ecclesiastical spirit”.
“Hopes have risen for a return to normality and unhindered participation in our Church’s divine mysteries,” the Synod said. “We urge you to listen to the voice of scientists and experts, who always inform citizens with a high sense of responsibility and propose appropriate solutions.”
Speaking at Levadia llate last month, Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens told Greeks that they faced a choice between “a vaccine or a grave”. Metropolitan Kyrillos of Kifissia ordered clergy to “stop arguing about whether the vaccine is sinful”.
Greek media, however, said that some Orthodox priests had denounced the vaccines, and threatened to bar recipients from communion.
Several of the Orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos have also criticised vaccination programmes, while the Georgian Orthodox Church confirmed earlier this year that it would not “take responsibility for supporting the vaccine”.
About 1000 Orthodox priests and laypeople demonstrated against compulsory vaccinations on Tuesday in Chisinau, the capital of Moldavia, although the country’s government denied such plans.
In Russia, where doubts about the Sputnik vaccine have led State Duma MPs to urge better government insurance and compensation schemes, a Moscow Patriarchate official, Vladimir Legoyda, assured a press conference that there was “no religious component in the issue of vaccination”.
Metropolitan Mark Golovkov of Ryazan told a local radio, however, that “prudence and caution” were justified, and that Russian society should not be “divided into vaccinated and unvaccinated”.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, has been harshly criticised for branding vaccine hesitancy a sin and backing government plans to order at least 60 per cent of service employees to receive jabs.
Although a traditional procession in Moscow commemorating the Christianisation of Russia was called off on 28 July, Patriarch Kirill also faced media criticism for leading a mass procession and liturgy a week earlier at Kazan without Covid precautions.
Shrines and sanctuaries in Europe are facing severe problems from the absence of pilgrims and visitors: Fatima, in Portugal, which usually attracts six million annually, is reporting staff lay-offs and financial hardship.
Proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test were required for attending this week’s annual youth festival at Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the site of Marian apparitions since 1981, and have also been a condition to entry from mid-July to the ecumenical Taizé community in Burgundy.
Proof of full immunisation will also be required for events during the Pope’s visit to Slovakia in September.
“Given that millions of holidaymakers are lying head to head on the beach all day, common sense wonders whether a mandatory test wouldn’t have been sufficient,” one prominent Slovak priest, Marián Gavenda, told reporters. “I understand our government wishes to use the Pope’s visit to increase the vaccination rate; but we should make sure this measure doesn’t further polarise society.”