ATHENS - After Greek Church leaders said they would defy a ban on opening for Epiphany Day that was aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis agreed to an exemption not allowed closed businesses.
The New Democracy leader had pleaded with church leaders to obey an extension of a second lockdown to save lives even as the virus is decimating the ranks of clerics but they refused and he conceded.
The government said it would allow only limited attendance at churches but morning scenes showed crowds gathering in apparent defiance of social distancing rules that church leaders said they would follow.
Not all churches opened their doors but those that did agreed to hold attendance down to 25 to 50 persons depending on the size of the church but that more would be allowed in briefly for private prayers after the service was over.
Under an agreement between the Church and government, the traditional blessing of the waters conducted each year on the Epiphany, on January 6, took place inside the churches and not in the open, in rivers and beaches, as customary.
The Orthodox Church celebrates Jesus' baptism during the Epiphany as one of the most important religious events of the year but had agreed to health protocols in 2020 that affected Easter and the Christmas holidays.
The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece was angry it wasn't consulted and decided unanimously to oppose the Epiphany Day restrictions during a lockdown that was pushed past the Jan. 7 original date for lifting.
The government said the Church couldn't decide which laws to follow but then let it happen although police were going to be outside churches with loudspeakers advising people to follow health measures.
“The Holy Synod... does not concur with government measures regarding the operation of churches and insists on what was initially agreed with the state - that churches will stay open for the participation of the faithful in the Mass of Epiphany,” it said in a press release.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Epiphany is one of the most important religious feasts and commemorates the baptism of Christ and the revelation of the Holy Trinity, Reuters noted.
As well as church services, it is traditionally marked by popular celebrations including one in which swimmers retrieve a cross thrown into the water by a priest. The government had already banned such celebrations but had agreed to allow a limited number of worshippers to take part in church services.
A government official said lockdown laws applied to everyone equally before they didn't. “We hope the Church will realize the urgency of the moment for society, as it has responsibly done so far,” the official who was not named told the news agency.
During Christmas, churches operated under the same restrictions as a few priests flouted rules about wearing masks, limiting attendance and safe social distances, for which they were arrested, fined 1,500 euros ($1851.07) and given three-month suspended sentences, while congregants were fined 300 euros ($370.21) each.
Mitsotakis appeared unwilling to take on the Church again and Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos - who was hospitalized for COVID-19 - met after a swearing-in of the government's new Cabinet to talk.
In Thessaloniki, the nucleus of a deadly second wave of the virus, ultra-religious groups said the blessing of the waters should take place near the city's iconic White Tower on a seaside promenade.
Police and Coast Guard forces are spread across the city's waterfront to prevent the event from taking place. A woman managed to throw a cross, attached to a string, into the sea, while shouting "shame"! At least three people were detained.
Greece has tightened its lockdown until January 11 to allow schools to open on that date. Retail shops and hairdressers that were open for the holidays were shut down and churches were supposed to close, as well the government staying tough on them.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)