While religious authorities around the world are taking precautions against the coronavirus outbreak, the Greek Orthodox Church has so far failed to address the issue adequately.
“For the members of the Church, attending Eucharist and Communion through the common glass of life certainly cannot be a cause of disease transmission,” the Greek Orthodox Church said in a statement on 9 March.
In Orthodox liturgy, worshipers not only take the holy communion but also partake of the consecrated wine during the mass, usually from one common spoon, something the Roman Catholic Church has abandoned.
Instead of hygiene measures, the Greek religious authorities urged worshipers to “pray” against the spread of the virus and take all the necessary measures indicated by authorities.
The stance of the Greek Church has triggered strong reactions, as critics, including former leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, suggest that it is ignoring science and advice of health experts.
With public statements, several clerics have urged worshipers to continue taking part in Holy Communion, with some of them invoking the argument that Jesus Christ himself never got sick.
The country’s conservative government, which has close ties with the Greek Orthodox Church, has not yet reacted.
In addition, the Greek Association of Hospital Doctors denounced some medical practitioners who publicly said that coronavirus cannot be transmitted through Holy Communion.
“These doctors subordinate scientific truth to personal religious beliefs,” the association said, adding that they inappropriately use their scientific titles to “mislead” public opinion on serious public health issues
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in other European countries has decided to taken stronger precautions against the coronavirus.
Across Europe, Roman Catholic bishops asked their communities to closely follow the guidelines given by the public health authorities, but they have also taken some additional precautions according to which there will no longer be holy water in the fonts when entering and leaving the church, and the Sacramental bread will no longer be placed on the tongue.
Parishioners are also asked to temporarily exchange the sign of peace without physical contact.
Despite the ongoing Lent period until Easter (12 April), services have been cancelled in many dioceses of the world.
In Italy, Europe’s worst-hit country, the coronavirus outbreak has led the Catholic Church to consider breaking with centuries of traditions.
The Vatican is currently rolling out unprecedented health measures in order to protect its residents, mostly belonging to the high-risk category.
Over the weekend, Pope Francis’s traditional Sunday prayers were live-streamed, in a bid to prevent crowds from descending on Saint Peter’s Square in Rome.
During the first days of the outbreak, the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology closed all of Italy’s ancient catacombs, citing concerns that the humid conditions and narrow spaces would allow the virus to spread.
Asked by journalists about additional measures in Rome for the upcoming Easter celebrations, Pope’s spokesman Matteo Bruni confirmed that a check was currently underway to determine whether special measures should be taken to prevent the virus from spreading around the St. Peter’s dome.
At Saint Peter’s Basilica, the holy water fonts were emptied, as was the font at the entrance to the sacristy.
As a result of specific actions taken by the Holy See, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, held a historic meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. These are the first talks at such a high level between the papacy and the Middle Kingdom.
Yi later told the Chinese media that he had thanked the Holy See for “solidarity” during the struggle against the coronavirus epidemic, in what was probably Chinese diplomacy’s most direct statement about the Holy See in more than a decade.
At the same time, the coronavirus outbreak is also changing the way Muslims worship around the world.
Saudi Arabia, home to the Muslim world’s holiest sites, has banned the ‘Umrah’ pilgrimage for residents and citizens, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA).
Last week, the Kingdom also announced it was going to prevent foreigners from entering the holy city of Mecca and the Kaaba, the building at the centre of the Great Mosque, as well as suspend travel to Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina.
Iran, which is struggling with a rising number of cases and deaths each day, halted the Friday prayers in all provincial capitals.
Muslim leaders in other countries have advised their worshippers to use their own prayer mats and avoid shaking hands, or pray at home.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]