It is an unequal struggle: in Greece, a country where the separation between Church and State does not exist, the majority of the population is, at least on paper, Orthodox Christian. And how there is a part of the clergy that does not believe in vaccines or that the faithful can be infected within the church, not even communicating, the situation is very tense.
And that the venerable Archbishop of Athens and primate of the Greek Orthodox Church, His Beatitude Jerome II, 83, has shown himself from the first moment supporter of following the indications of the scientific committee which advises the Greek Government on the fight against the pandemic. He confirmed it again in July, stating that the Church of Greece “will fight for the good of the people”, after an informative meeting held at the Holy Synod (the set of all Greek bishops) with the former Minister of Health, Vasilis Kikilias, and the chief adviser to the Executive for the pandemic, Professor Sotiris Tsiodras.
The hierarchs presented their doubts and the meeting, according to the archbishop, it was ‘crucial and useful’. For his part, Kikilias, now head of Tourism, declared that the Holy Fathers had been “respectfully asked to support and help in this effort [de vacunación]». The result was that in all Greek churches a text was distributed for the faithful, answering the most frequent questions and doubts and explaining the need to be vaccinated to combat Covid. The archbishop himself declared emphatically that «On this side is the vaccine, on this other side the grave. You choose ». The phrase of Minister Kikilias last week was also well received: “We will bring the vaccinations to the churches,” that is, there will be vaccination teams in front of the temples. The first to request it was the parish priest of the small church of San Nicolás, in Arjanes, Crete, where residents who have requested it will be able to get vaccinated in the morning on September 6.
In all his messages, dedicated to both the faithful and the clergy, the Archbishop emphasizes that “experts and scientists are trying to stop the transmission of the virus, while we must all contribute to it responsibly. However, members of the clergy deny the existence of the virus and others link it to conspiracy theories. A diplomatic statement that reflects reality: part of the clergy does not accept scientific explanations and makes mentions of the Antichrist, affirming that nothing from the Church can spread the virus, not even the spoon with which the faithful who wish to receive it receive the wine during communion – the Orthodox do not use a host, but individual pieces of bread that are distributed.
The problem is tricky. Most of the faithful have refused to wear masks and have only recently started using them. As if that were not enough, it has also been difficult to respect the measures imposed by the specialists on liturgies without worshipers and then the distances – the Catholic churches applied them from the first moment in all of Greece -, as well as the limitation of capacity in baptisms , weddings and funerals.
The figures reflect that vaccination rates, especially low in some regions, are directly related to the denial spirit of the local clergy, as in the case of Crete. For historical reasons, the island belongs to the Patriarchate of Constantinople and not to the rest of the Greek Church. There they have even registered accusations by citizens about members of the clergy who have threatened them that if they are vaccinated they will not be able to confess or receive communion.
For now, only two bishops, that of Kíthira (Monsignor Serafim) and that of Aetolia and Akarnanias (Monsignor Kosmás) are known to be deniers and have already been referred to the disciplinary committee of the Holy Synod. Both are accused of disobedience, moral instigation to disobedience of the faithful on the suggestions of the State and the Church in matters of health, theological error and contempt for ecclesiastical authority.
The worst is the lack of data: The Orthodox Church is opaque and does not offer figures on the vaccination of its clergy – priests do receive a state salary and pension – or the situation in their churches and monasteries. An example has been that of San Nektario, on the island of Aegina, very close to Piraeus and famous for being a very popular excursion, where twelve of the thirteen nuns tested positive three weeks ago, when they were visited by health inspectors and none were vaccinated. They were quarantined from August 8. The only thing that was published by the monastery was that the entire room had been disinfected and that the area dedicated to guests had been closed as soon as the isolation began. But the staff, who tested negative for the relevant tests, continued to serve the faithful, although there will be no liturgy until the end of the quarantine.
Another very notorious case was that of abbot Efrén, from the Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos, where the monastic community does not follow the slogans of the State and the vast majority of monks continue to be unvaccinated: when he fell ill with Covid, the religious was transferred by helicopter to the ICU of the prestigious La Anunciación hospital in Athens, due to the underlying conditions. A few weeks later, he returned to his monastery.