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Covid rules are still different across Europe

28 January 2022

Austrian hierarchy backs compulsory vaccinations first


Demonstration against vaccine passes in Stockholm, Sweden, on Saturday

Demonstration against vaccine passes in Stockholm, Sweden, on Saturday

THE easing of coronavirus restrictions from late January places the UK ahead of other European countries in restoring freedoms and allowing religious life to resume more normal patterns.

On the Continent, where more than 9.6 million cases, mostly of the Omicron variant, were recorded in the week up to 24 January, according to World Health Organization data, most European Union member-states now operate an EU digital Covid certificate, allowing unrestricted travel across the bloc for vaccinated citizens.
Within countries, however, rules and conditions vary considerably.

In Austria, where an 11 p.m. curfew remains in force for bars and restaurants, and tight movement restrictions for people who are not vaccinated, the predominant Roman Catholic Church became Europe’s first to back compulsory vaccinations, before their planned enforcement nationwide for all over-18s from February.

Although there will be no direct physical coercion, the measure will remain in force initially until January 2024, with repeated fines of up to €3600 for anyone refusing without a valid exemption.

“Compulsory vaccination represents a serious encroachment on physical integrity and individual freedom — it is only permissible if all other options to protect the population have been exhausted, taking proportionality into account,” the Vienna-based Bishops’ Conference said in a pre-Christmas statement.

“It is the responsibility of our rulers to assess whether the prerequisites for this are met and whether a temporary vaccination requirement now offers the appropriate means for protecting the common good within reasonable limits. . . The goal must be to protect health and freedom in equal measure.”

Church organisations have urged parents to get their children vaccinated; 37,000 jabs had been administered by mid-January at St Stephen’s Cathedral, in Vienna, one of many church premises acting as vaccine centres.

Evangelical churches in Austria have expressed doubts about the new vaccination law, saying that there was a lack of clarity. The RC Church’s Caritas organisation has urged recognition of the Russian Sputnik and Chinese Sinovac vaccines, which are not officially approved by the European Medicines Agency, to allow thousands of health-care workers from Eastern Europe, as well as migrants and asylum-seekers, to obtain the necessary passes.

In Italy, the centre-Right government of the Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, is to introduce compulsory vaccination in February for the over-50s, and a state of emergency has been extended until the end of March, empowering the government to implement new laws at short notice.

A “super green pass” is now required for access to public transport, hotels, restaurants, and most indoor venues in Italy, which recorded 352 Covid-19 deaths and 20,000 hospital cases on Monday.

Although churches are exempt, the Vatican has required its employees to be fully vaccinated, with boosters, since December, and extended the rule from mid-January to outside visitors, who must also wear higher-grade filtering-face-piece (FFP2) masks.

Despite fears of staff shortages, full vaccinations are required for medical and care-home staff in Germany, while compulsory vaccinations were debated by the Bundestag on 26 January.

On Monday, the Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced an extension of emergency restrictions, including limits to private gatherings, after Omicron cases doubled in a week. Church services are permitted, with hygiene precautions determined by dioceses, and most clergy have vigorously backed vaccinations — some priests and pastors have reported hate mail, even death threats, over their stance.

In a media interview, the new Chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Dr Annette Kurschus, blamed protests against government measures on “small but vocal minorities who claim to divide an entire society”.

The RC Archbishop of Bamberg, the Most Revd Ludwig Schick, became one of the first signatories this week of a Bamberg Declaration, declaring “trust in science” and opposing “conspiracy theories surrounding the corona protests”.

Proof of vaccination is currently required for entry to churches in Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Croatia, as well as in the Netherlands, which remains in lockdown: bars, cafés, cinemas, museums, and theatres are closed.

Congregations in the Netherlands are restricted to 50 people, and a ban on services held after 5 p.m. was imposed in December by the Dutch government. In a pre-Christmas statement, the RC Bishops’ Conference urged “solidarity with the whole of society”, and called on Christians to “pass through this dark time with the strength of faith”.

Calls for Covid passports for attending religious services in Europe have come from other church leaders, however, notably Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, who heads a Brussels-based commission representing RC bishops in the EU.

“During this phase, when the pandemic is resurgent, we must save lives — and this green pass should welcome people to mass,” Cardinal Hollerich told the Italian daily La Nazione. “Some priests have objected, and this isn’t helping the search for a solution.”

For now, most countries have avoided such restrictions. In France, where protests erupted in Paris last weekend over new rules requiring a “green pass” for access to inter-city public transport, hospitality businesses, and leisure facilities, as well as stadiums and other outdoor spaces, restrictions affecting church services were lifted last July after a spate of court cases.

Religious leaders, however, have urged vigilance. President Macron has warned that restrictions will be extended until all eligible citizens are vaccinated, in what some critics have dubbed a form of “social apartheid”.

Safety measures, including number limits and advance registration, are required at most churches in Belgium, which also imposed a pre-Christmas lockdown. Police said that protesters had travelled from neighbouring countries to attend a rally of at least 50,000 in Brussels last weekend, during which water cannon and tear gas were used to disperse attacks on EU buildings.

In Spain, where religious services are largely unrestricted, a mid-January report by the RC charity Caritas said that 11 million people — more than one quarter of the population — had been left “excluded” by two years of anti-coronavirus measures.

Six out of ten Roman Catholics said that they had had their children vaccinated, despite anti-vaccine agitation by conservative groups, in a survey this week by Spain’s Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas. A large majority believed that vaccination should be made compulsory. Figures were lower among declared non-believers and adherents of other faiths.

Scandinavia, Finland, Norway, and Sweden are to ease travel restrictions by the end of this month, although some religious restriction remain in place.

A “corona pass”, or proof of vaccination, is needed for entry to restaurants, cinemas, and museums in Denmark, where congregations are limited to 100, and an 11 p.m. curfew remains in force.

The Church of Sweden requires proof of vaccination and social distancing for services at which more than 50 people are present; and the RC Bishop of Stockholm, Cardinal Anders Arborelius, told Vatican Radio that the pandemic had provided an “unexpected opportunity for evangelisation and ecumenical co-operation” in this largely secular country. Churches were working together to help victims and jointly negotiating with the government for the easing of worship restrictions.

Across the Baltic, strict curbs remain on gatherings and travel in Latvia and Lithuania, but not in Poland, where church services remain largely unrestricted, despite rising infections and a vaccination rate below the EU average. An RC priest in Poland faces prison after he was arrested last week for selling fake vaccination cards in the southern Krakow archdiocese.

Neighbouring Slovakia has been in lockdown since 12 January, although rules for churches were relaxed this Wednesday, to allow up to 100 vaccinated Christians to attend services again, with “chessboard seating”. Although funerals, weddings, and baptisms are unrestricted, regional health authorities have powers to tighten regulations.

In the Czech Republic, the president of the Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Jan Graubner of Olomouc, told Roman Catholics in a recent pastoral letter that he was against compulsory vaccinations, but believed that citizens should “voluntarily sacrifice part of their freedom out of charity for the common good”.

Among Europe’s predominantly Orthodox countries, churches are generally open in Romania, subject to mask and hygiene conditions, while police roadblocks between towns were scrapped this month in Bulgaria.

In Russia, Orthodox Church restrictions, including a ban on visiting priests, were reimposed this week in Moscow after a record rise in Omicron infections. This also forced Patriarch Kirill to cancel a traditional post-Christmas meeting with parliamentarians.

In Greece, where curfews and travel restrictions remain in force on some islands, several Orthodox priests have faced charges for spreading “false information” against vaccines, while the Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod has warned clergy that they could be unfrocked for questioning the government’s vaccination programme.
Prosecutors from Thessaloniki are investigating conditions at the ancient monastic peninsula of Mount Athos, after reports that most of its 2260 monks had refused vaccination.

At the 40-strong Philotheou Monastery, five men died in the space of a week in late January, while six more were in a critical condition, sparking angry complaints from Orthodox bishops.

In Europe, protests and riots against continuing restrictions are becoming more frequent, amid growing polarisation, which has prompted calls for dialogue and mutual respect from church leaders.

The Conference of European Churches cancelled its operations at its Brussels and Strasbourg offices during the pandemic, and pledged in a website message to continue “constantly accompanying” its members in “prayer and solidarity”.

In an address to Vatican-accredited diplomats on 11 January, the Pope warned that Covid-19 would continue “to cause social isolation and take lives”, and said that vaccines, though “not a magical means of healing”, remained “the most reasonable solution” and should be made available worldwide.

“We live in a world of strong ideological divides — frequently, people let themselves be influenced by the ideology of the moment, often bolstered by baseless information or poorly documented facts,” he said.

“A political commitment is thus needed to pursue the good of the general population through measures of prevention and immunisation that also engage citizens. . . The lack of resolute decision-making and clear communication generates confusion, creates mistrust, and undermines social cohesion, fuelling new tensions.”

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