Orthodox drama: Covid-19 vs. Dogma

Salome Kandelaki[1]

Due to the coronavirus outbreak the state of emergency has been announced in Georgia at 15:00, March 21, 2020. Among other restrictions, gathering of more than 10 people was banned.  According to the Constitution of Georgia and the Law on State of Emergency the restrictions have been placed on all and everything – including religious gatherings. However, after announcement of the government order, religious service in the Orthodox churches had still been served in crowded spaces, demonstrating the low levels of civic consciousness of the society as well as of the social responsibility of the religious institution, thus becoming a target of criticism by one part of the Georgian society. Questions around the principle of secularity, further obscuring the already unclear relationship between the state and the church, had newly arisen. This blog analyses the social responsibility demonstrated by the Georgian Orthodox Church and other religious denominations in the light of the current events; also, the ways the other European Orthodox Churches responded to the Coronavirus crisis.

How did the Georgian Orthodox Church respond to the announcement of the state of emergency?

Although the current crisis has touched all religious denominations, the society has paid a special attention to the measures taken by the Georgian Orthodox Church in response to the crisis. Unlike the Orthodoxs, other religious confessions, namely the Muslims, the Jews, also the Roman-Catholic and the Armenian Apostolic Churches have restricted the believers from attending the religious services and have conducted religious rituals in empty spaces.  Some Churches have even temporarily changed the communion rules. However, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Georgia has seen such a change as a breach of faith threatening to override the religious dogmas. The special attention towards the actions of the Orthodox Church is preconditioned by the fact that the 89% of the population of Georgia identifies itself as Orthodox Christian. Apart from this, it has been the only religious organization that has signed a concordat – a constitutional agreement- with the state, according to which, the Church is not only responsible for the spiritual development of the society, but also, it has a social role (point 3 of chapter 4). Announcement of the state of emergency has coincided with the Pre-Easter period, with a busy schedule of religious rituals, what has made it harder for the Church to adapt itself to the mode of the state of emergency. The fact, that the Presidential decree has been presented to her the day before the Sunday service, while the Patriarchate had previously claimed for several times it was not going to change the communion rule, also has to be taken into account. As a result, religious services had been continued in churches as usual for weeks more. Such actions of the Orthodox Church as well as the perplexity of the society over the issue were also stipulated by the announcement of the Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia made on March 22 claiming the state of emergency did not place restrictions on participation in religious rituals. While, on the other hand, the epidemiologists together with the Prime Minister of Georgia had actively called for staying home and asked the society to refrain from participating in any sort of public gatherings. One part of the society has voiced protests against the religious confessions disobedience with the law, while another part has gone further and compared the Church to “terrorists”. On their part, the churchgoers have also gone antagonistic with the criticism, some even have voiced slogans like “I’m not staying home, I’m going to the Church of Christ”.

Importantly, during his preach on March 22, the Patriarch has addressed the parish to keep the distance during religious ceremonies, but in the end, everything depended on individual decisions of priests in various churches, and in most cases, nothing changed. Therefore, on march 25, 2020 the Synode was urged to make an announcement, that it was obligatory to keep distance in all churches and churchyards, while those, who believed there was a risk of spreading virus at church, could have a priest visit them home. The announcement, however, didn’t address the issues of changing the rule of communion and the restriction on gathering of more than 10 people, what, to be delicate, comes into conflict with the rules of the state of emergency officially defined by the state. Moreover, the Patriarchate considers it inexcusable and a crime against the God to restrict those  people from attaining services at church for whom it is vitally important. In response to this, a number of priests and theologists have made an announcement in which they criticize Synods statement as a serious accusation towards most of the Orthodox Churches. Also, they believe the statement reads a certain confrontation between the religious dogmas and the law, which comes into conflict with the state interests.

Initiating confrontation among the members of society and further escalating the tension in the light of overwhelming negative emotions and global fight against the pandemic, is totally unacceptable. While the cooperation of the Church and the State could, on the other hand, help relieve the tension. Currently, the mutually inconsistent actions taken by the Church and the State result in perplexity of the society and split public opinion in two. The negative economic conditions have also come to light. The poorest part of the society has now found itself in a stalemate, as the free dineries have closed and lots of elderly people are waiting for help, in this situation, the church with its human resources could play an important role to ease the tension. In this situation, handling the crisis rapidly and effectively is vitally important, therefore each member of the society should pay more attention to both moral support and active measures.

What are the measures undertaken by other Orthodox Churches of Europe to prevent Coronavirus outbreak?

In this context, it’s interesting, how the Orthodox World responded to this challenge. The World Patriarch Bartholomew is conducting the service in an empty church from March 22. He called for the entire Orthodox World to stay home and to keep the stricktened rules. The Patriarch of Constantinople has also touched the widespread opinion that the stricktened rules can do harm to the faith, and claimed that ’’not the faith but the believer is under danger, not Christ, but our Christians, not the God-man but the human”. Although the World Patriarch is named ’’the first among equals”, his claims are not of a mandatory but rather of a recomantational character, thus every country follows only decisions of their Synodes and Patriarchs. Due to outbreak of Coronavirus, the Russian Patriarchate has taken unprecedented sanitary measures in churches, including making it allowable to take the sacrament with individual spoons, as well as taking “sweetness” after the communion in single use plastic cups. While on March 29, due to acute danger of epidemics called the believers to refrain from coming to church.

Controversial positions of the Orthodox Churches on the issue have been actively discussed worldwide in articles titled ’’Coronavirus vs. Church”, where the problematic issues of changing communion rule and risks of spreading epidemics are discussed.  Despite previous doubts over the issue, the churches of the Central and the Eastern Europe where the Orthodox Christianity is a dominant, namely, the churches of Bulgaria, Greece, Ukraine, Moldova and also, Armenia recently have officially called for their perish to stay home. They have also decided to conduct religious services with the participation of religious servants only.

Example of Romania is especially prominent: on February 27 the Patriarchate has announced the decision to take special measures allowing the believers to bring individual spoons with them if they liked. However, media outlets soon spread information that the same spoon was still used during communion and the churchgoers didn’t keep the distance. Because of this the president Iohannis had to take more severe measures and the persons ofer 65 years were banned from leaving their homes. According to the religious figures from Belarus they are not going to cancel the Easter service, however the churches are being disinfected. However what are other measures taken by them is unknown, as  there is no official statement on their official webpage. Moreover, president of Belaurs Lukashenko has boasted there are few coronavirus cases in the country (see diagram 1) and recommended to its citizens to drink vodka and visit saunas frequently. On March 15, during his meeting with the President of Serbia, Patriarch Irinej claimed his readiness to fight the virus and to take preventive measures hand in hand with the state, however visits to churches has not been banned yet. A number of reporters have shared videos revealing that the communion is still being taken from a single spoon, however the Serbian Church has been denying this fact. Apart from this, information has spread that two clerics have been infected by coronavirus. Among the countries of Central and Eastern Europe where the Orthodox church is dominant, the least cases of coronavirus have been reported in Georgia (after Belarus) while the most number persons were infected in Romania. Importantly, in Malaisia, Iran and Korea rapid spread of coronavirus has been related to conducting religious rituals. Therefore, it is possible that the Georgian believers also become infected during the religious services, which will create certain risks for church as well as for the public interests. The measures undertaken by the churches mentioned above fall into two categories: the first group continues to conduct religious services in the presence of parishioners, the second group – without them. The reasons why actions of Orthodox Churches are inconsistent, is unknown. In cases of Belarus and Georgia, it can be the small number of infected persons that allows them not to undertake more radical measures (see figure 1).  However, considering cases of Romania and Serbia, where the numbers are alarming, we can’t follow same logic. On the other hand, we may conclude that the state institutions in these countries do not have the stance strong enough to induce both church and society respect the law.  It is important, that during crisis the Church and the State are not competing for power that both harms people’s faith and throws shade at the idea of a state.

Further inhibition of the virus spread cannot be possible without every citizen and every group of the society obeying the rules imposed by the state of emergency. This is why the Church should play the role of the unifier and stand side by side with the State to enforce the state of emergency. Taking into consideration the high level of trust enjoyed by the Georgian Orthodox Church it has the huge moral responsibility towards the society and a mistake over the issue may turn crucial for its reputation. In case people are infected during a religious ritual, it cannot be identified whether this happened because of violating the distance that has to be kept between persons, or because of the communion ritual that has been kept unchanged.  None of the above-mentioned Orthodox Churches have confirmed the possibility of spreading virus through the communion ritual, however part of them found ways to take measures without harming their belief either by temporarily accepting usage of plastic spoons and cups or calling people to stay home. Actions like this in fact help the Church to keep its face and raises its level of social responsibility in the eyes of the society. Moreover, the Orthodox Church and other religious denominations are equal before the law.

The current crisis has once again placed the Georgian Orthodox Church before a dilemma, also, it made the society think over the dogmatic and institutional character of the Church, as well as the actual ability of the Georgian government to enforce the special state defined by the constitution. Perhaps, the main question that arose in these days is whether the Orthodox Church has the potential to consolidate itself around the civil principles, act as a flagship of national solidarity and possesses an inner resource of social responsibility. Evidently, up to now the government of Georgia has been unable to enforce either the rule of law, or all parameters of the state of emergency, as long as, at this stage, the government has refrained from taking active measures against the strong authority of the Church. This situation made it evident that the Church is above law.

[1] Salome Kandelaki is a junior analyst at Georgian Institute of Politics (GIP).

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