ATHENS – Greece's powerful Orthodox Church is rebelling against a government order to briefly close places of worship under a weeklong drive to tighten virus restrictions before the planned reopening of schools.
The conservative Church's ruling body issued a statement Monday directing priests to admit worshippers during indoor services for Wednesday's feast of the Epiphany. The Holy Synod said it “does not accept” the new restrictions, in force from Jan. 3-10, and would send a letter of protest to the center-right government.
The government responded with a mildly worded statement voicing hope that the Church “will realize, as it has so far responsibly done, how crucial this time is for (Greek) society.”
It added that Greeks are still free to offer individual prayers in church, but not to attend services. This had not been specified when the restrictions were announced on Jan. 2.
After Greece saw a spike of new COVID-19 infections and deaths in November, when intensive care units bordered on full capacity, authorities imposed a second lockdown, closing schools and suspending much economic and social activity. The measures were partially relaxed before Christmas, when churches and nonessential shops were allowed to resume some activities — albeit with limitations — together with hair salons and nail parlors.
All these have now been closed for a week, while priests are allowed to conduct Epiphany church services but without admitting worshippers. The restrictions were aimed to contain the virus spread so schools could reopen after the Christmas and New Year's holidays, following a two-month hiatus because of the pandemic.
The education ministry said Monday that in-person nursery and primary classes will start again on Jan. 11, while secondary schools will resume online classes on Jan. 8 with a view to fully reopening when possible.
The Holy Synod statement said the government should stick to the Christmas relaxation, which had followed negotiations with the Church, arguing that clerics had faithfully observed all agreed pandemic containment measures over the holidays.
Church functionaries have shown a mixed response to pandemic containment measures, ranging from lukewarm support to virulent opposition.
The Church's moderate leader, Archbishop Ieronymos — who himself contracted and recovered from COVID-19 — has backed the country's ongoing vaccination drive. But a conservative bishop made headlines after Christmas by railing against the vaccines, telling parishioners he had been informed that they included material harvested from aborted fetuses.
Greece on Monday started to vaccinate retirement home residents and workers, with authorities saying that drive would be completed by Jan. 20. Separately, health workers have already started to be vaccinated.
Nearly 10,000 people have received the jab since Dec. 27, more than half of them on Monday, while the target for the end of January is 220,000.
Meanwhile, daily new confirmed infections remained within three digits — 427 on Monday — a considerable improvement from a high of over 3,500 in November. Health officials reported 54 new deaths, compared with a daily record of 120 in November.
The overall death toll in the country of nearly 11 million is about 5,000.