Head of Serbian Orthodox Church tests positive for virus

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Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Porfirije performs the traditional Divine Liturgy in the St. Sava temple in Belgrade, Serbia, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. Orthodox believers in Serbia celebrate Christmas on January 7, according to the Julian calendar. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE – Patriarch Porfirije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, has tested positive for COVID-19, the church said Tuesday, amid a surge in infections in the country and elsewhere in the Balkan region.

Porfirije has developed “very mild symptoms of the virus infection” and remains in home isolation, said the statement. It added that Porfirije is carrying out administrative duties entirely without problems.

The 60-year-old patriarch became the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church after the previous patriarch, Irinej, died in November 2020 after contracting the coronavirus.

Porfirije on Sunday attended a mass ceremony in Republika Srpska, the Serb-run part of neighboring Bosnia, where few people wore face masks.

Serbia reported over 13,000 new infections on Tuesday, the highest number since the start of the pandemic in the country of 7 million people. The number of daily new cases has risen sharply after New Year's celebrations that included open-air concerts and relaxed anti-virus rules.

Experts say the current rise in cases is driven partly by the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus and is likely to worsen further. Epidemiologist Predrag Kon on Monday criticized the virus policies of authorities.

“Everything that was organized should not have happened,” Kon said. “Belgrade exploded after New Year's and now it's spreading to the rest of Serbia.”

Serbia has recorded over 1.3 million cases of infection since the start of the pandemic while almost 13,000 people have died of COVID-19.

Infections have been on the rise in neighboring Croatia where authorities further limited gatherings from Tuesday, widened the mandatory use of face masks and urged companies to organize home work when possible.

Croatia on Tuesday reported almost 8,000 new cases in the past 24 hours while authorities said that 38 people died, bringing the COVID-19 death toll in the country to nearly 13,000.

Croatia's neighbor, Slovenia, on Tuesday reported 5,164 new cases of coronavirus, which the official STA news agency said is the highest daily tally since the start of the pandemic. Slovenia has tightened entry and other rules in face of the omicron wave.

In Bosnia, authorities in part of the country said they recorded a 98% rise in infections in the past week which has led to the tightening of rules on gatherings and testing. Officials said further limitations are possible.