VATICAN CITY: More than 260 million Orthodox Christians celebrated Easter Sunday, with church leaders asking worshippers to stay at home to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus.
Orthodox Christians, the world’s third-largest group of Christian believers, this year celebrate Easter a week after Catholics and Protestants because they follow a different calendar.
Last week’s Easter celebrations took place in empty churches while Pope Francis live-streamed his traditional message from the Vatican as the pandemic that has killed more than 150,000 made massed worship too risky.
Most Orthodox Christians will also skip traditional midnight services, even though Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union where most live have relatively low numbers of confirmed cases of the virus so far.
Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who leads 150 million believers, has urged the faithful to pray at home and not go to church until he gives his blessing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is dropping his usual attendance at an Easter service and will go to a chapel in the grounds of his residence outside Moscow.
In Moscow and the surrounding region, where most Russian COVID-19 cases are concentrated, churches will hold services behind closed doors with broadcasts online or on television.
However, churches will remain open in many regions of the country, which has reported around 36,800 cases of coronavirus and more than 300 deaths.
Church officials have asked worshippers who attend to keep their distance, wear masks and not kiss icons.
In much of the wider Orthodox region, churches will not be open to the public.
The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has announced that services will be closed to the public and broadcast online.
The same decision has been taken in Cyprus, Greece, Serbia and North Macedonia as well as in Egypt, where Orthodox Coptic Christians comprise 10-15 percent of the population.
Jerusalem’s Old City is normally packed for Orthodox Easter but was almost deserted at the weekend due to Israel’s strict lockdown measures.
The annual Holy Fire ceremony took place behind closed doors in the city’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The flame is then taken to Orthodox countries worldwide.
According to tradition, the Holy Sepulchre stands on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.
In Romania, while churches have closed their doors, volunteers and priests will go to people’s homes handing out loaves of consecrated bread and sharing the holy flame.
This compromise has angered some people.
“If we can go to a pharmacy to get medicines for our body, why can’t we go to church for our spiritual medicine?” asked Monica Georgescu, an Orthodox Christian in her 70s who lives in Bucharest and says she has not missed an Easter service since childhood.
Officials versus clerics
A number of Orthodox churches have opposed the imposition of lockdown measures on their most important holiday.
In Bulgaria, the Orthodox Church has insisted services will be open to all, but worshippers will have to wear masks and stand at a minimum distance from each other.
In Georgia, which has 385 confirmed cases, the government has bowed to pressure from religious authorities and allowed services in the largest churches despite the public lockdown, while no senior officials will attend.
Ukraine has seen a similar divergence of views with President Volodymyr Zelensky urging people to stay at home and linking a surge in infections to last week’s Catholic celebrations.
Ukraine’s Orthodox Church has encouraged worshippers to gather in the open-air.
It has nonetheless been hard hit by the virus with 93 people infected at its historic Kiev-Pechersk Lavra monastery where three monks have died.
In ex-Soviet Belarus, a country of nine million with a relatively high number of cases, the situation is reversed, however.
Belarusian Church leader Metropolitan Pavel has urged believers to stay at home saying “ritual is secondary while human life is much more valuable”.
But President Alexander Lukashenko — who regularly casts doubt on the extent of the pandemic — insisted he will attend an Easter service, proclaiming: “I will be in church. It is my tradition.”