ATHENS – While coronavirus scares – 89 cases so far confirmed – have led to spectators being barred from attending the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony in Ancient Olympia, there are no plans to stop Holy Communion as Easter approaches in Greece.
Only 100 accredited guests will be allowed to attend the traditional event, Greece’s Olympic committee said, with worry that the Tokyo Games this summer could be postponed or even scrapped as athletic events around the world are shutting down or played without fans.
A dress rehearsal on March 11 for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic flame will also be closed to the public to comply with Greek government restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus.
The Tokyo organizing committee said it will “reduce the size of its traveling delegation as much as possible,” after pulling back plans to send 140 children to Greece to give the flame a send-off next week on its journey to Japan.
The New Democracy government has a contingency plan to close public gathering spots, with soccer games being played in empty stadiums, conferences called off and in-country travel by students also stopped but the Greek Church said people who take Holy Communion can’t get the coronavirus.
The ruling body of the Orthodox Church of Greece issued a statement saying that the coronavirus cannot be transmitted through holy communion as the “faithful of all ages know that even in the midst of a pandemic, it is both a practical affirmation of self-surrender to the Living God and a potent manifestation of love.”
“For the members of the Church, attending the Holy Eucharist… certainly cannot be a cause of disease transmission,” the Holy Synod said, Kathimerini reported, without any word from the government on whether it would intervene although there is no separation of Church and State in Greece.
It’s common in Greece as well for churchgoers to kiss icons that have already been kissed by others ahead of them although that could be an easy transmitter of disease with health officials otherwise uring people to be careful even when touching ATM keyboards or door handles on public transportation.
The Church said people should follow the Health Ministry guidelines although that would technically mean they shouldn’t take communion, leading critics to say it was contradictory and with major opposition Radical Left SYRIZA complaining about the practice.
SYRIZA is led by former premier Alexis Tsipras, an atheist who said he would separate the government from the Church but didn’t move aggressively to do so during his 4 ½ year reign that ended in a July 7, 2019 snap election defeat to New Democracy.
“At a time when schools, universities and stadiums are kept closed and special measures are being taken for the swearing-in ceremony of the Greek President, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece insists that the sacrament of holy communion bears no danger of transmitting the new virus,” he said.
SYRIZA said the problem “is not what the Holy Synod says, but what the state policy says on the matter, who along with the National Public Health Organization and the ministry of health, all bear the sole social responsibility for the protection of citizens and for not spreading the virus.”
The Holy Synod said leaflets containing the safety measures outlined by the Health Ministry will be handed out to church congregations across the country although people have been advised to be careful about what they touch.
The Greek federation of hospital doctors said that no exception “for religious, sacramental or metaphysical reasons” should be made to state health warnings to please the Church and leave the religious who believe they will be protected to be susceptible to getting, and spreading, the virus.
Critics of the Church said the government should step in because communion could jeopardize public but Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who had been aggressive in bringing measures to contain the virus, is steering clear of the flap.
Legal experts told Kathimerini that litigation against the Holy Synod on these grounds would not produce results as it often takes years for Greek courts to act.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)