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COVID Deaths of Serbian, Greek Orthodox Religious Leaders Triggers Alarm

November 23, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia — After the two most senior Serbian Orthodox Church leaders died within a month after testing positive with the coronavirus, health experts and even hardcore believers are starting to worry. The spread of the virus within the largest religious group in the Balkans is getting more alarming by the day.

A senior Orthodox Church priest, who took part in the prayers at the funeral of Serbian Patriarch Irinej on Sunday when most of the preventive measures against the coronavirus were ignored, has tested positive for COVID-19, Serbia's state TV said Monday.

Bishop David is the latest person among the top clergy to get the virus, raising concerns in the Balkans that the Orthodox Church could be helping to spread the virus with its doctrine that true believers can't get infected during Holy Communion and other church services.

But the two most senior Serb religious leaders — the patriarch and Bishop Amfilohije — died after COVID-19 complications. They both downplayed the dangers of the pandemic, avoided wearing masks in public and Amfilohije described large religious gatherings as "God's vaccine." 

Thousands of people on Sunday attended the funeral of the Serbian patriarch. Irinej, 90, who died on Friday, three weeks after attending the funeral of Amfilohije in neighboring Montenegro during which mourners kissed his remains lying in an open casket.

On Sunday, many mourners and most priests holding the funeral service in the massive St. Sava Temple in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, didn't wear masks or adhere to social distancing inside the church, kissing the glass shield covering Irinej's remains and even using a single spoon during Holy Communion. 

Although the church has asked mourners to keep their distance and wear face masks in line with the anti-virus recommendations, even priests inside the temple were without masks. 

Serbian epidemiologists have said there was no way they could ban the traditional funeral prayers.

"A ban of more than five people is in place, but we could not and did not ban the funeral of the patriarch," said Predrag Kon, of the government-appointed team fighting the virus spread. "It is clear there will be new infections. We will know this in a week."

A spate of coronavirus infections have also dogged the Greek Orthodox Church, with several senior church figures catching the disease.

The 82-year-old head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos, was hospitalized last week, with doctors saying Monday he was in stable condition for the fifth day.

The death of a bishop in northern Greece earlier this month revived controversy surrounding Holy Communion, which in the Orthodox Church is given using one spoon shared among the entire congregation. 

In Greece, the powerful Orthodox Church has insisted this practice can't transmit the disease as it is the body and blood of Christ.

Metropolitan Bishop Ioannis of Lagadas, 62, was an outspoken advocate of continuing communion during the pandemic. He was buried last Monday after dying of COVID-19. His region near the northern city of Thessaloniki is among the worst hit by the current surge of coronavirus cases in Greece.

With pallbearers dressed in protective full-body over-suits standing nearby, some of those who attended his funeral lowered their masks to kiss the coffin — a traditional gesture at funerals in Greece. 

The church's governing body, the Holy Synod, hit out at critics who reacted to the bishop's death by saying the practice of communion could spread the coronavirus.

"Certain aspiring leaders of public opinion are insisting in a neurotic manner on concentrating exclusively on Holy Communion," the Synod said in a statement. "They cite unscientific correlations with the spread of the coronavirus, in defiance of epidemiological evidence."

In the spring, the government ordered all places of worship, including churches, to shut down during the country's first lockdown, after the Synod failed to order a shutdown itself. At the time, the church had said suggestions that any disease can be spread through the practice of communion were blasphemy.

Greek health experts have mostly avoided commenting on church practices, but have noted that World Health Organization guidelines list saliva droplets as a leading means of contamination.

Greece is currently in a second lockdown as cases spiral, and churches have once again been shut down to the faithful, with services allowed only online.

But some continue to defy the ban. On Sunday, police interrupted a service in a northern Greek village, fining the priest 1,500 euros ($1,780) for allowing two people to attend.

The priest had been urging parishioners to defy the ban, saying "you're either with Christ or the coronavirus."

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