SOFIA (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said on Thursday that Bulgaria’s Orthodox churches and temples will be open for traditional Palm Sunday and Easter services despite the coronavirus outbreak, saying many people were desperate and in low spirits.
However, Borissov also urged Bulgarians to stay and pray in their homes. Services at major churches would be broadcast live on state television.
“A difficult decision but I am ready to bear the reproaches,” Borisov told a news conference. “The bishops told me that there are many people who are in low spirits, desperate. So I just cannot issue such an order (to close churches).”
Services on Palm Sunday and especially Easter normally draw thousands to churches all around the Balkan country.
Interior Minister Mladen Marinov said police will maintain a heavy presence around churches to keep order and ensure social distancing.
Bulgaria has declared a state of emergency until May 13 and imposed a ban on groups of more than two adults congregating together. As of Thursday, it had 611 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and 24 deaths.
The Orthodox Church will not distribute willow branches, as it customarily does, on Palm Sunday, Lovech Metropolitan (Bishop) Gavriil said, describing the move as “no small compromise”.
Large crowds of people usually go to churches to fetch the branches.
Gavriil said Easter services will start outside churches and the Holy Synod, the church’s top executive body, recommended that worshippers wear protective masks.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has been criticised on social media for keeping its houses of worship open in spite of the coronavirus crisis.
Many Bulgarians also pointed fingers at the church for keeping the practices of people kissing icons in churches, and using shared spoons during communion services.
Valeri Simeonov, the head of a nationalist party which is part of the ruling coalition, said the church should stop communion services.
“Let’s not pretend that it (the church) is holy. We are at war with with an invisible enemy,” he said.
But many politicians have taken part in the Holy Communion, saying they are not afraid.
“Do not fear!” said Gavriil. “Where God’s grace is, all microbes burn. There is no case of contagion being transmitted through Holy Communion.”
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Angus MacSwan)