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Greece Looks to Church, God to Persuade COVID-19 Anti-Vaxxers

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FILE - Church of Greece Holy Synod. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Christos Bonis, file)

ATHENS – Unable to convince a hard-core group of skeptics that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective and not a conspiracy to alter their DNA or control their minds, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakis Mitsotakis is seeking help from a higher authority.

He's asking the hierarchy of the Church of Greece – itself riddled with rabid anti-vaxxers who say God will protect them and their flock, which hasn't worked, to help persuade people to get their shots.

Except for health care workers, Mitsotakis hasn't made vaccinations mandatory, although he has the authority to do so, even as the Coronavirus has rebounded over defiance of what's left of health measures and a surging Delta Variant.

There were violent protests in the streets outside Greece's Parliament in the heart of the capital, some people wearing religious garb and waving wooden crosses as if the enemy were vampires instead of a virus.

A number of clerics have died from the virus, including Bishop Ioannis of Lagadas in northern Greece, and the head of the Church, Archbishop Ieronymos had to be hospitalized after contracting the disease in 2020.

That came after priests and the Church demanded to keep giving Holy Communion as the pandemic spread, as they claimed it wasn't dangerous for people who may be infected to share a spoon with others, and to kiss icons.

The New York Times said that the government is hoping the Church can do what Mitsotakis, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, doctors, scientists, epidemiological professors and other officials haven't: convince people to be inoculated.

“The message from Greek officials is the same as it is from governments around the world: get vaccinated, get vaccinated, get vaccinated,” the story said, noting that the so-called Eleftheria (Freedom) campaign is slowing, with less than half the country being fully protected, cutting into tourism rebound hopes too.

Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias and the government’s chief epidemiologist, Sotiris Tsiodras, visited the church’s Holy Synod to ask Archbishop Ieronymos to stop rebel clerics from continuing to urge people NOT to be vaccinated.

After the visit, the church sent a circular to its clergy describing vaccination as “the greatest act of responsibility toward one’s fellow human being,” asking it be read at services but few priests who aren't falling in line are facing sanctions.

The advisory also listed questions and answers about the Coronavirus and the pandemic, none of which has yet dissuaded the skeptics from increasing their resistance against the government or vaccines that are working.

“Some clerics have been using their sermons to stoke vaccine hesitancy while others have warned that churchgoers getting shots will be denied Holy Communion,” the story noted.

In the second-largest city Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, a priest was removed from duty after telling worshipers to not get the vaccine and to defy COVID regulations that have been eased back dramatically.

In nearby Halkidiki, at mass celebrating the Orthodox Easter, another priest banned vaccinated and masked worshipers from attending his services, describing pressure to get the vaccine as “diabolical” and “fascist.”

Ieronymos has been unable to control his clerics on a number of issues but in this case is being aided by the government circular it's using as a persuasion tool  that calls vaccines “a gift from God” they should accept.

Church leaders asked the faithful not to pay attention to arguments “which lack scientific grounding or ecclesiastical spirit,” but those who do aren't listening yet.

The disbelievers among  clerics are also spreading conspiracy theories about the shot containing embryonic cells or microchips designed to monitor people’s movements or with the number 666 – the Devil's sign – in it.

There haven't been any omens so far.