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Holy Synod Wants COVID-19 Holy Communion, But Not Yoga

ATHENS – The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece said the continuation of Holy Communion with the winding down of a lockdown aimed at preventing the spread of the COVI9-19 Coronavirus can't spread the virus because it's not bread and wine in the Holy Chalice but the body and blood of Christ.

The Synod rejected a call by the Constantinople-based Patriarch Vartholomaios for a dialogue between Orthodox churches about Communion and the clerics also said Christians should not practice yoga, recommended by some as a way to relieve stress during the pandemic. 

“Yoga is completely incompatible with our Orthodox Christian Faith and has no place in the lives of Christians,” it declared.

“The Sacrament of the Eucharist remains non-negotiable, as we have been taught by the teaching of the Orthodox Tradition and the Holy Fathers of our Holy Church,” the Holy Synod said in a statement.

Vartholomaios’ call came after health officials warned taking Holy Communion, in which worshippers drink from the same spoon, could spread the virus but a the Church said it can't, reported Kathimerini.

That reverts to the stance the Church held before the lockdown was brought before relenting under pressure from Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis but still disputing scientific evidence of how a virus is spread.

The Holy Synod said any suggestion that illness or disease could be transmitted by Holy Communion is blasphemy, a stance echoed by the Church of Cyprus.

“Regarding the issue that is unjustifiably raised from time to time about the supposed dangers, which in these blasphemous views are said to lurk in the life-giving Mystery of Holy Communion, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece expresses its bitterness, deep sorrow and diametrical opposition,” it said in a May 13 circular on social distancing measures in churches.

The Synod “underlines one more time to all those who, either due to ignorance or conscious faithlessness, brutally insult all that is holy and sacred, the dogmas and the sacred rules of our faith, that Holy Communion is ‘the medicine of immortality, antidote to not dying, but to living according to the teachings of Jesus Christ forever.’”

“In the holy chalice, it isn’t bread and wine. It is the body and blood of Christ,” said the Rev. Georgios Milkas, a theologian in the northern city of Thessaloniki. “And there is not a shred of suspicion of transmitting this virus, this disease, as in the holy chalice there is the Son and the Word of God.”

This is proven, he also said, through “the experience of centuries,” rejecting any notion that shared utensils can spread the virus although there have been a number of outbreaks in religious communities around the world for congregating. 

A communal spoon presents “fairly significant dangers,” said Dr. Nathalie MacDermott, an academic clinical lecturer for Britain’s National Institute for Health Research at King’s College London.

“The danger of transmitting any kind of respiratory viral pathogen or even bacterial infections is quite high with the sharing of utensils,” she said. “And for it to be passed among what is probably a relatively large group of people means that all it would take is one person to have coronavirus at the back of their throat, which potentially is in their saliva as well.”

“The issue of Holy Communion in particular is the only red line of the church and of the faithful in our souls,” said 19-year-old Michalis Gkolemis, attending services in Thessaloniki. 

“We don’t say that Holy Communion is the cure for all diseases, from the flu, for example, but we say that you cannot get sick by receiving Communion. You can’t catch a virus, something which isn’t proven scientifically but exists through experience.”

“This is a matter of public health concern,” said Dr. Gkikas Magiorkinis, assistant professor of hygiene and epidemiology at the University of Athens. “As an epidemiologist, I would like to be able to reduce the risk of transmission.”

But changing the minds of the faithful is “very difficult,” he said. “It’s a matter that can only be solved through discussion, and theological discussion rather than scientific discussion. Scientific discussion never helped, and it might have even worse results.”

Discussions with the church were always open, said Magiorkinis, who also advises the government on the virus. “Only the church can provide a solution,” he said.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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