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Society

Greek Orthodox Church Tells Priests to Ignore COVID-19 Closure Order

ATHENS — Greece's powerful Orthodox Church is rebelling against a government order to briefly close places of worship under a weeklong drive to tighten virus restrictions before the planned reopening of schools.

The conservative Church's ruling body issued a statement Monday directing priests to admit worshippers during indoor services for Wednesday's feast of the Epiphany. The Holy Synod said it "does not accept" the new restrictions, in force from Jan. 3-10, and would send a letter of protest to the center-right government.

After Greece saw a spike of new COVID-19 infections and deaths in November, when intensive care units bordered on full capacity, authorities imposed a second lockdown closing schools and suspending much economic and social activity. The measures were partially relaxed before Christmas, when churches and nonessential shops were allowed to resume some activities — albeit with limitations — together with hair salons and nail parlors.

All these have now been closed for a week as authorities hope to contain the virus spread so schools can reopen on Jan. 11 after a two-month hiatus. Priests are allowed to conduct Epiphany church services, but without admitting worshippers.

Monday's Holy Synod statement said the government should stick to the Christmas relaxation, which had followed negotiations with the Church, arguing that clerics had faithfully observed all agreed pandemic containment measures over the holidays.

Church functionaries have shown a mixed response to pandemic containment measures, largely ranging from lukewarm support to virulent opposition. 

The Church's moderate leader, Archbishop Ieronymos — who himself contracted and recovered from COVID-19 — has backed the country's ongoing vaccination drive. But a conservative bishop made headlines shortly after Christmas by railing against the vaccines, telling parishioners he had been informed that they included material harvested from aborted fetuses.

Monday's Holy Synod statement urged the European Union leadership, and the Greek government, to ensure that "the necessary number of approved vaccines is immediately secured for citizens."

"The Law Does Not Apply at Will"

The government on Monday said the Church of Greece must "realize the critical significance of the current juncture for society, as it has indeed so far responsibly showed that it does," in response to the Holy Synod's aired criticism against church closures on Epiphany Day (January 6).

"Throughout all stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the government has been in constant consultation with the Church of Greece on matters of liturgy, with respect to public health and people's faith. In this context, the Christmas and New Year church services were indeed held, and liturgies for the Epiphanies were also foreseen," said the governmental announcement.

The government continued to say that "the need to not undermine the steady pace of the fight against the coronavirus, especially in view of schools reopening, forced the return to the previous regime of restrictions on the retail sector and society, including the provision for churches to hold closed-doors liturgies on Epiphany, without the presence of the faithful."

With its published decision to reserve the right to potentially not abide with closure restrictions, "the Holy Synod shows it does not consent with the new measures (…), but the law cannot be applied as needed so that anyone who disagrees can sidestep it. Beyond a mere obligation, the implementation of preventive measures is also an act of social solidarity and responsibility, by all of us," concluded the government's statement of response.

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