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Greece’s Faithful Say Religion Above Law, COVID-19 Lockdown Measures

Αssociated Press

Police detains a woman during Epiphany in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, where a strong religious presence of Orthodox Christians have called for the blessing of the waters to continue. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

ATHENS - The faithful who flocked to Epiphany Day services in Greece after the New Democracy government backed down and allowed openings during a COVID-19 quasi-lockdown said they believed more in Church than state.

"State orders are one thing and faith is another," a 38-year-old worshipper who gave her name as Stavroula told the news agency Reuters, after attending morning service at a church on the outskirts of Athens. "No law can order us what to do."

Police were outside churches where attendance was supposed to be limited to between 25 to 50 depending on the capacity but didn't interfere as people lined up for services and queued for Holy Communion from the same spoon, a practice health authorities said was dangerous.

Some Church officials said it wasn't and that those taking Communion would be protected by a higher power, the Orthodox religion powerful in Greece where it is almost universal among those who believe in God.

When the crowds started gathering, police stepped up their measures and shouted through megaphones for people to stay away, the report said, but there were no reports anyone was fined for violating health protocols after the government relented to allow the services.

Αssociated Press

A man throws a cross into the sea as policemen go to detain him during Epiphany in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, where a strong religious presence of Orthodox Christians have called for the blessing of the waters to continue. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

The Church had in 2020 mostly complied with the health measures despite resistance over Holy Communion but this time the Holy Synod refused to obey and said the services would have gone on even if barred.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who admitted bringing a second lockdown too late on Nov. 7 had extended it twice, now to Jan. 11, but was reluctant to confront the church leaders again, reduced to pleading with them.

The government had extended public lockdown measures, effectively withdrawing permission which had been granted previously to hold Epiphany services with a maximum of 50 people in attendance in large churches and 25 in smaller ones.

But after the Holy Synod resisted, Mitsotakis gave in despite the worry public gatherings could again spread a second wave of the Coronavirus and as other non-essential businesses were still prevented from opening.

Synod leaders wrote to the government to say there was no justification for preventing Epiphany services, indicating again their belief that there was little to no risk from people gathering in churches or taking communion from the same spoon.

Αssociated Press

Police detains a man holding a cross during Epiphany in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, where a strong religious presence of Orthodox Christians have called for the blessing of the waters to continue. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

A popular ritual in which swimmers retrieve a cross thrown into the water by a priest has been banned this year but in the port area of Piraeus, Reuters TV footage showed a priest blessing the waters with a cross which was kissed by a small number of masked worshippers.

"If a priest goes with a cleric to bless the waters without there being any people, what would be the problem?" said attendant Suzanna Mousteloglou. "Who would have an issue?"

Before backing away, the government said it wouldn't and that no one was above the law, including the Church, before it was.

"The law cannot be implemented piecemeal, whereby anyone who disagrees merely ignores it. We hope the Church realizes the crucial period for society, as it has responsibly done up until today. Implementation of the preventative measures and precautions is an obligation, as well as an act of social solitary and responsibility of us all," the government stated before Mitsotakis then changed his stance.