The coronavirus has dealt a double blow to the powerful Greek Orthodox Church, with the disease spreading through its ranks even as the clergy fends off criticism that it has been stoking the pandemic.
The church’s leader, Archbishop Ieronymos II, declared from the outset of the pandemic that he was committed to supporting the conservative government’s public health campaign to halt the spread of the virus. On Nov. 30, the 82-year-old archbishop left an Athens hospital after 12 days of treatment for the infection, urging Greeks to “restrict yourselves, discipline yourselves, follow the rules.”
But defiance by Orthodox hard-liners and the church’s unflinching commitment to the tradition of holy communion, in which worshipers consume sacramental bread soaked in wine from a common spoon, appears to have undercut those good intentions. Several clergy members have even gone so far as to insist that faith in the communion sacrament can shield people from the virus.
As the Greek authorities struggle to contain a second wave, some of the fiercest criticism of the church now is coming from within its ranks. One bishop, Anthimos of Alexandroupolis, condemned those who, with “criminal sermons,” have urged Greeks to ignore public health restrictions.
At least six of the church’s 82 bishops in Greece have caught the virus, including the 62-year-old Bishop Ioannis of Lagadas in northern Greece, who died of Covid-19 on Nov. 15. But the actual number of infected clerics is not known, as some have not made their illnesses public.
In other global developments:
Like the Greek Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is struggling with a surge of coronavirus infections. Beginning Monday, the church will suspend religious services for a month in Cairo and in the province of Alexandria, following an outbreak of coronavirus cases among worshipers and leaders. Services like funerals and baptisms will continue on at a limited capacity, but the church cautioned its adherents to follow anti-coronavirus measures. Egypt, the most populous country in the Middle East, has reported a rise in infections, with a daily average of about 400 cases in the last week. In all, the country has recorded at least 118,014 cases and 6,750 deaths.
Indonesia’s minister of social affairs was arrested on Sunday for receiving more than $1.2 million in bribes from companies that distribute government coronavirus food aid to the needy. The minister, Juliari Batubara, turned himself in to the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission, which had announced the arrest of six people involved in the scheme and the confiscation of $1 million in cash packed in 10 suitcases and backpacks. The food aid, including staples such as rice and cooking oil, was intended for residents of Greater Jakarta, a megacity with a population of about 30 million that has been hard hit by the pandemic. The commission accused the minister of assigning two staff members to collect the equivalent of a dollar for every $30 in aid. Indonesia has reported 575,796 coronavirus cases and 17,740 deaths, the most in Southeast Asia.
Officials in South Korea, which is struggling to contain a third wave of coronavirus cases, said on Sunday that social distancing regulations in the Seoul capital region would be raised to the second-highest of five levels for the next three weeks. Under the new restrictions, karaoke rooms and indoor gyms are shut down, and people are encouraged to stay home as much as possible. On Sunday, South Korea reported 631 new infections, most of them in Seoul and surrounding areas.
The Australian state of Victoria, which had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, is further loosening restrictions after 37 days with no locally transmitted coronavirus cases. As of 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, nightclubs may reopen, public gatherings may be increased to 100 people, and weddings, funerals and religious services may be held without limits on the number of attendees. Masks must be carried at all times but are mandatory only on public transit and in large retail outlets. Dan Andrews, premier of Victoria, said that barring a new surge in cases, the new rules would apply until at least the end of January.
Austria paused a mass coronavirus testing campaign in parts of the Alps after fierce snowfall elevated avalanche warnings this weekend. The danger was greatest in the province of Tyrol, where officials warned people to stay home. Some parts of Tyrol expected as much as 43 inches of snow on Sunday, according to Austrian news agencies. Austria began a free nationwide testing program on Friday ahead of the end of a lockdown on Sunday.