Orthodox Churches Hold Diminished Easter Services Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Orthodox churches in much of Eastern Europe have held Easter Vigil services with few or no parishioners present because of restrictions imposed to block the spread of coronavirus.

In Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kyiv, priests wearing the elaborate robes that characterize Orthodoxy’s most important holy day held services that began late on April 18, but worshippers could only watch on television or online.

Police were deployed outside churches in Ukraine to ensure that anyone who came remained outside and observed regulations calling for social distancing and a ban on large gatherings.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Ukrainians to celebrate from home out of concern that the disease will spread further, and most church leaders complied, agreeing to broadcast their services online and on television.

An exception was the Pechersk monastery in Kyiv, where police regulated entry to the church to one worshipper at a time after another worshipper left.

The monastery was placed under quarantine after more than 90 of its monks were identified as infected with coronavirus. At least two have died.

The Russian Orthodox Church ordered churches to close their doors to large groups during the week leading up to the holiday, although some churches in remote regions were expected to have services with parishioners attending.

Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill led the church’s main service at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. In an Easter epistle, he said Orthodox Christians should not lose heart or despair in the difficult circumstances and should not panic.

President Vladimir Putin did not attend the vigil. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he would stay at his home, the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, and light a candle at a chapel on the property.

In Bulgaria the government urged people not to attend Easter vigils but didn’t ban them. Hundreds flocked to outdoor services late on April 18, but many opted to watch on television.

“In the current situation, we must be better and more humble,” Prime Minister Boyko Borissov wrote in Facebook. “Let’s do everything we can to be proud of our decisions and actions in years to come.”

The most contentious debate over Orthodox Easter occurred in Georgia, where church leaders and the government agreed to allow parishioners to attend dusk-to-dawn Easter vigil services.

The agreement meant worshippers were allowed to attend overnight services in large cathedrals despite a curfew, but they were required to maintain a distance of 2 meters. Those who attend small churches had to remain outside.

Dozens went to the main Sameba cathedral in Tbilisi, where Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II said that the virus had caused fear among many people and their gaze had turned to God.

“The Christian takes problems with gratitude and sees God’s hand in everything…and at the same time tries to find the right solution in the current situation,” he said.

With reporting by Reuters and AP.
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