Orthodox churches empty for Easter amid pandemic

Mstyslav Chernov
Associated Press

Kyiv — Orthodox priests in much of Europe held Easter services in churches empty of parishoners because of restrictions imposed to block the spread of coronavirus.

In Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kyiv, priests at the services that began late Saturday night wore the elaborate robes that characterize Orthodoxy’s most important holy day and choirs sang, but worshipers could only see them on TV or online broadcasts. 

A priest distributes holy light to households Saturday during the coronavirus pandemic in Bucharest, Romania. Priests accompanied by volunteers distributed the holy light ahead of the usual time, at midnight, as people observed the interdiction to join religious celebrations in the week leading to the Orthodox Easter, imposed across Romania as authorities try to limit the spread of the COVID-19 infections.

Police were deployed outside hundreds of churches in Ukraine to ensure that anyone who came to stand outside a service observed regulations calling for social distancing and banning large gatherings.

A small exception was made at the Pechersk monastery in Kyiv, where police allowed worshipers to enter the church one at a time, with the next person going inside when another left. About 100 people stood outside the monastery waiting to be let in.

The monastery, a major tourist attraction because of its extensive system of caves and catacombs, was closed under quarantine; more than 90 of its monks have been identified as infected with coronavirus and at least two have died.

The monastery belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church and is one of two rival Orthodox denominations in Ukraine. The church’s leader drew criticism after suggesting that worshipers could gather outside while services were conducted rather than staying at home.

That statement increased tensions with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which last year was granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Orthodoxy’s prime authority, displacing the Russia-affiliated church.

In Georgia, some churches were open to worshipers, but only if they committed themselves to arriving before the country’s 9 p.m. curfew started and remaining there until the curfew lifts at 6 a.m. About 100 people showed up to do that the Holy Trinity Cathedral in the capital Tbilisi, where marks were placed on the floor so that people would observe distancing. 

All churches in greater Moscow, St. Petersburg and many Russian regions have been closed since Monday, although some churches in remote regions were expected to have services with parishoners attending.

Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill led the church’s main service at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. In an Easter epistle, he called on his flock not to be discouraged by being unable to attend services.

“We Orthodox Christians should not lose heart or despair in these difficult circumstances, let alone panic. We are called upon to preserve the inner world,” he said.

In Cyprus, many Orthodox faithful stood on their balconies or front porches with lighted candles as clergymen officiating midnight Easter Service in empty churches chanted “Christ is Risen.” Cypriots observed Easter services from their televisions at home following a government-imposed ban on worshippers attending church services that’s part of a strict stay-at-home order. 

Jim Heintz in Moscow, Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this story.