The Greek Orthodox church has announced it will defy government lockdown orders aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus and open places of worship to mark Epiphany this Wednesday.
After an emergency session of the holy synod, its governing body, senior clerics said they would press ahead as planned and celebrate the baptism of Christ on 6 January.
“The synod does not agree with the new government measures regarding the operation of places of worship and insists on what was originally agreed with the state,” the ecclesiastical body said in a statement.
“It asks that the aforementioned decision be absolutely respected by the state without further ado taking into consideration … that all the foreseen hygiene measures were upheld by clerics in thousands of churches across Greece.”
The announcement, which flies in the face of new week-long restrictions on movement, is the most open act of defiance yet by the powerful institution.
Before the holiday season Athens’ centre-right government had said it would relax curbs and permit all places of worship to conduct services, albeit with limited congregations, on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and the Epiphany.
But with the country’s health system under pressure after a surge in coronavirus cases, the administration rescinded the decision at the weekend saying restrictions eased over the festive period would be reimposed to facilitate the reopening of schools on 11 January. Greece has been in lockdown since 7 November.
How the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who kicked off the new year with a cabinet reshuffle earlier on Monday, will react to the decision remains to be seen. The sight of worshippers breaching restrictions that have caused consternation, not least in the retail sector, would fuel further controversy. Epidemiologists have called for even tougher curbs if a second wave of the pandemic is to be brought under control in a country that, while faring better than most, has recorded 140,099 coronavirus cases and 4,957 Covid-19 deaths to date.
Church hardliners have increasingly questioned the public health measures, deploring the prohibition of coveted rituals such as the sacrament of communion, conducted with a shared spoon.
Their anger comes despite prominent church leaders and countless clerics falling sick with the disease. Greece’s spiritual leader, Archbishop Ieronymos II, who was treated in hospital for two weeks with coronavirus before being discharged on 30 November, had previously sided with the curbs.