THESSALONIKI – A symbol of holiness around the world – but now also of some defiance against COVID-19 measures – Mt Athos has become a strange brew of monks supporting restrictions to slow the pandemic and those who don’t believe in them.
In a feature, the Reuters news agency reported on the contradictions that has seen religious leaders there wanting a probe of anti-vaxxer clerics at the same time the Greek Church said while it supports health measures that it can’t enforce them for people going into churches.
In the chapel of a monastery on, Father Makarios who was reading the gospel while conducting a liturgy as he waited for his Coronavirus vaccination said even Men of God have to separate religion from science.
“I did have some thoughts about whether (the vaccination) is needed. Of course we have faith in God and God protects us,” said the 70-year-old monk, who said he had “approached death” after catching COVID-19.
“But science is something in the hands of God, God enlightens the scientists so they can protect humanity,” he said, reflecting one school of thought of the type that said the deity showed man how to make penicillin and medicines too.
COVID has raged across the sacred mountain where some 1,600 monks in a closed community live at the site on northern Greece’s Halkidiki peninsula, the pandemic dividing them.
Nine have died since the start of the pandemic and many in the 20 monasteries have been infected but only about 40 percent have been vaccinated and safety measures aren’t always enforced at the site which draws pilgrims and visitors from around the world.
Between October and November, at least 100 cases were recorded, Giorgos Miteloudis, a doctor at the Mount Athos health center told the news agency, with anti-vaxxers across Greece now infecting even the fully vaccinated.
“It is exceptionally dangerous in a closed community like a monastery, which is basically like a family, where it is difficult for the members of the family to protect themselves from each other,” he said.
After seeing others fall ill or catching the virus themselves, at least 30 monks decided to take the shots to protect themselves, two required over weeks or months depending on the version, apart from the single-shot Johnson & Johnson from the United States.
Since many of the monks are over 70, in an especially susceptible category, they are more at risk of catching the virus, being hospitalized, being put on a ventilator in a hospital, or perishing.
“On Mount Athos the older people are called the elders, the respected elders, they are the guides of spiritual life on Mount Athos. They pass on their personal spiritual wisdom and experiences, even their holiness, and we owe it to protect them,” Miteloudis said.
More than 1,000 years old, the autonomous Orthodox spiritual center has scores of small living units along with its monasteries, making it hard to keep track of infections, the report noted.
It’s on a peninsula sticking out into the Aegean Sea and only men are allowed, even to visit and a range of celebrities, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Britain’s Prince Charles have gone but even heads of state who are female are prohibited.
It was closed to visitors for three months during the last lockdown in Greece and rapid tests are required to come in, only people who can show they are free of the virus admitted.
Greece is undergoing a resurgence of the pandemic that’s brought record levels of cases, hospitalizations and deaths and has spurred many of those skeptical of the vaccines to line up for shots.
That has brought the numbers to about 72 percent of the country’s population of 10.7 million people, above the 70 percent threshold that health officials said was needed to beat back the pandemic but it’s still rising.
That’s largely because of the anti-vaxxers who don’t believe the shots are safe or effective or that they are part of an international conspiracy to alter their DNA or control their minds.
The unvaccinated are locked out of many public gathering spots but still allowed into churches to mix with the vaccinated, as well as in pharmacies and supermarkets, which are overflowing with holiday shoppers, spreading the deadly risk.
For some on the Holy Mountain, vaccinations have been a struggle between science and religion, the report noted. But Father Epifanios, who came to the health center for his third shot, a booster, had no indecision. “Medicines are medicines, they are not holy water,” he said.