CONSTANTA, Romania (Reuters) – Thousands of Romanian Orthodox Christians crowded into the harbour of the Black Sea port of Constanta on Wednesday, breaking social distancing rules to celebrate an Epiphany service.
Romanian authorities have banned public gatherings due to the coronavirus, but said they would allow up to 3,000 people with face masks to attend the open air service.
The Orthodox Church wields considerable influence in the socially conservative state, and a Reuters reporter estimated up to 4,000 attended the event, some without masks and many joining a tightly-packed crowd being blessed by holy water.
More than 20 swimmers dove into the cold sea to retrieve crosses thrown by Orthodox Archbishop Teodosie, a popular ritual.
“It’s for the joy of being closer to God,” said Mihail Fedul, one of the swimmers. Asked how he was protecting himself from getting infected, the 31-year-old lifeguard said: “We continue to protect ourselves with the holy cross and with the imposed restrictions.”
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Epiphany is one of the most important religious feasts, commemorating the baptism of Christ and the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and associated events took place in Athens and Kalofer, Bulgaria.
While Romania’s Orthodox Church has mostly respected curbs on religious services to limit the spread of COVID-19, Archbishop Teodosie has repeatedly violated restrictions, holding services indoors for unmasked crowds, and organised pilgrimages, which are mostly banned.
“We will hold our service the same as every year,” he was quoted saying by state news agency Agerpres on Tuesday, “because mass does not change in the pandemic, it stays the same. We must hold more services in the pandemic.”
The European Union state, which has extended a state of alert until mid-January, has reported 654,007 coronavirus cases and 16,299 deaths.
(Reporting by Octav Ganea and Luiza Ilie; editing by John Stonestreet)