Although the number of people with COVID-19 continues to increase steadily in the Balkans, some Christian churches refuse to change liturgical practices prone to contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.
In the celebration known as Holy Communion or Eucharist, Orthodox Christian devotees drink consecrated wine that they share from a spoon, while Catholics receive the wafer, sheets of unleavened bread, directly from the priest's hand.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends avoiding highly crowded places and increasing levels of cleanliness and personal hygiene to minimize the spread of the virus through contact, the exchange of bodily fluids and through the air.
In an official statement on March 13, the Greek Orthodox Church said it would not modify the celebrations to comply with security measures. He also added that “the coronavirus is not transmitted through Holy Communion and that the faithful should pray that the deadly virus does not spread.”
Bishop Klimis of the Greek Orthodox Church, metropolitan Peristeri, a municipality on the outskirts of Athens, said that those who believe that the virus can be spread through religious celebrations are blasphemous:
The Holy Communion is life. It is a miracle. It is a blasphemy to believe that the virus can be transmitted by receiving Holy Communion.
Holy Communion is life. It's a miracle. It is blasphemous to believe that the virus can be transmitted by receiving Holy Communion.
89 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Greece and no deaths so far.
Authorities, which recently closed schools and banned mass gatherings in an effort to prevent transmission of the virus, urged the Church to rethink the situation.
However, state officials themselves seem to ignore those concerns. On Sunday March 8, an important holiday for religious, the President and some government ministers attended a public mass.
In neighboring North Macedonia, the Archbishopric of Ohrid, belonging to the Macedonian Orthodox Church, seems to have chosen the same path. Although the church has yet to release an official statement on the outbreak, it has continued to celebrate Holy Communion normally.
Alarms went off when the official website of the Prespa-Pelagonia diocese published a translation of an article on the Russian website Pravoslavie.ru (“Orthodox Christianity”) stating that it was “impossible for believers to become infected during religious celebrations.”
The text is signed by Russian priest Sergey Adonin, who claims to have knowledge of microbiology and hospital work experience. Furthermore, the article highlighted that the rule of using the same spoon instituted in Byzantium in the 7th century has not harmed anyone so far, since “faith in God protects both parishioners and priests.”
Also in North Macedonia, right-wing propagandists expressed their support for the church. For example, a conservative television presenter, who had previously supported anti-vaccine activists, boasted on Twitter of having participated in risky religious celebrations:
Јас се причестив минатат недела во Црквата Св. Благовештение во кругот на Клиничкиот Центар и пак ќе се причестам! Што ви е проблемот? https://t.co/GX5zzwRHfv
– Јанко Илковски (@JankoIlkovski) March 8, 2020
Despite the request of the health authorities, believers received Holy Communion without fear of the coronavirus.
I received Holy Communion last Sunday at the Church of the Holy Annunciation which is part of the Skopje Clinical Center and would do it again! What do you care?
Sladjana Velkov, anti-vaccine celebrity operating in Serbia and North Macedonia, recently stated that the situation “is not serious” and that the new virus is “only like a common cold, which, like other cases of the common cold, affects only people adults with immunological problems ”.
Meanwhile, from Italy, where more than 631 people died from the infection and more than 10,000 are affected, this user tweeted:
Please, please guys. Here in northern #Italy we made one big mistake. Everybody kept saying “It's just flu” and now our intensive care units are collapsing. Everybody kept going outside like nothing happened and now our grandparents and parents are dying.#coronavirus is not #flu
– Bianca💮🇮🇹 (@labisbeticah) March 9, 2020
Please, please, listen. Here in northern Italy we made a serious mistake. Everyone said, “It's just a flu.” And now our intensive care units are collapsing. They all kept dating as if nothing happened and now our grandparents and parents are dying. Coronavirus is not the flu.
So far, seven cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in North Macedonia; 25 in Slovenia; 13 in Croatia; six in Albania; five in Serbia; five in Bosnia; and none in Montenegro.
In addition, there have been 28 cases in Romania and six in Bulgaria.
Christians in other parts of the world
The world has witnessed the spread of the new coronavirus through religious congregations.
In February, the vast majority of the 7,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South Korea, a country that until then seemed to have the outbreak under control, were found to originate from the Jesus Shincheonji Church group.
Criminal charges were brought against the sect, often called a cult, and its 88-year-old leader, who publicly apologized.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox Diocese of South Korea announced changes in liturgical practices to follow the recommendations of the Ministry of Health:
1. During the Divine Liturgy all believers will wear masks.
2. Before entering the Church, they will disinfect their hands with a disinfectant present at the entrance of the Church.
3. They will not shake hands with anyone.
4. They will not kiss the hand of the Clergy.
5. They will not kiss the Icons, but they will bow before them.
6. They will not use the liturgical books at the time of prayer.
7. They will not receive the Antidoron from the Clergy, but on their own as they leave the church.
8. The Agape Meal will not be served following the Sunday Liturgy.
9. The various group meetings of the Faithful as well as the Catechumens will not take place.
1. During the Divine Liturgy, all believers should wear masks.
2. Before entering the church, hands should be disinfected with disinfectant at the entrance.
3. No one will shake hands.
4. No one will kiss the cleric's hand.
5. No one will kiss icons, but they will bow to them in reverence.
6. No one will use the liturgical books at the time of prayer.
7. No one will receive Antidoron of the Clergy, but it can be taken on their own when they leave the church.
8. Agape will not be served after the Sunday liturgy.
9. There will be no meetings of groups of faithful or catechumens.
Some churches in Europe have adopted similar measures, such as the Catholic Church in Italy.
The diocese in Croatia also enacted restrictive rules; in France, a pilgrimage site in the city of Lourdes closed.
The Romanian Orthodox Church announced by decree that “exceptional measures were taken only because of the threat of an epidemic”:
Believers who are afraid of virus transmission may temporarily refrain from kissing the holy icons in the churches. They can exceptionally ask the priest to use their own spoon for the Holy Communion.
Believers who fear transmission of the virus may temporarily avoid kissing holy icons in churches. Furthermore, they can exceptionally ask the priest to use their own spoons for Holy Communion.
After Italy declared the complete emergency closure on national territory, other European states, for example the Czech Republic, which also took measures on March 10, such as the closure of schools.
The Government of North Macedonia declared a state of emergency and also closed gardens, schools, and universities for two weeks.
Check out Global Voices' special coverage of global impact of COVID-19.