ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged the country’s influential Orthodox Church on Tuesday to respect coronavirus restrictions during Epiphany celebrations on Jan. 6 after Synod leaders said they would defy the lockdown.
Church authorities wrote to the government on Monday to say there was no justification for withdrawing the permission previously given to hold services on Epiphany, one of the most important dates in the Orthodox Church calendar.
“The prime minister called on the Church to assume its responsibilities and assist in the big effort to limit the consequences of the pandemic,” Mitsotakis’s office said in a statement.
It remains unclear how many churches will hold services on Wednesday or what measures the authorities might take to stop them, given the important position the Orthodox Church holds in Greek public life.
Mitsotakis earlier on Tuesday met Archbishop Ieronymos, head of the Church, at a swearing-in ceremony for new ministers following a cabinet reshuffle.
His office said Mitsotakis had expressed his concern at the call to hold services and called on the Church to set a good example and assist in the common fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cost more than 5,000 lives in Greece so far.
Monday’s letter from Synod leaders marked a rare show of dissent by Church authorities, which until now have largely respected pandemic restrictions curbing religious services along with other public activities.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Epiphany is one of the most important religious feasts and commemorates the baptism of Christ and the revelation of the Holy Trinity. It is also marked by a popular ritual in which swimmers retrieve a cross thrown into the water by a priest – a celebration banned this year.
While Greece has been more successful than many European countries in containing the spread of the coronavirus, its health service, badly weakened by years of financial crisis, has struggled to cope with thousands of new cases.
(Reporting by George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Gareth Jones)