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Georgian Orthodox Church Defies Some Emergency Rules amid Coronavirus Pandemic

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Sunday Liturgy went on unhindered in thousands of churches belonging to the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) today in Georgia, despite a state of emergency imposed yesterday. Even though the government vowed to ban gathering in of groups of more than ten people, Georgia’s preeminent church proved reluctant to cancel the services altogether, as many of its sister churches have done. The rituals were altered only marginally – by wiping clean the icons after each faithful kissed it, or by asking – in some cases – the congregation to stay well apart.

But many fear, that the Church’s failure to call on the faithful to stay home, and crucially, its insistence to keep providing the holy sacrament from the same spoon to the parish, is dynamiting the government’s efforts to contain the highly-contagious coronavirus.

Since the early days of the outbreak health professionals have asserted the importance of physical (social) distancing. This sits ill against religious practices of many denominations. But since the religious services in the U.S., France and South Korea had become hotbeds of transmission, most religious communities took preventive measures.

The Holy Synod, a ruling body of the GOC met on March 20 to agree on a common stance. After day-long discussions, leading clergymen of the Church issued a communiqué partially addressing public health concerns. It said the sermons could be broadcast through loudspeakers outside the church houses, allowing the worshipers to keep their distance from each other. However, the Synod insisted that altering the rite of holy Eucharist was non-negotiable. By no means can a sacrament become a source of infectious disease, one of the Bishops claimed.

This did not reassure non-believers, but also left some faithful uneasy. Calls have multiplied for the government to step in. At first, it seemed that the cabinet was reacting. Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia appealed to the President to declare national emergency on March 21, a day after the Holy Synod’s meeting. “The country has moved to a different stage of the spread of the disease, that of a community transmission,” stated Gakharia. Tackling this challenge, he said, would require coordinated efforts from the government, business and entire society. He spelled out to the public that the ban on public gatherings would be enforced universally, explicitly including the churchgoers.

But as the measures were adopted and went into effect late on March 21, government’s unity on the matter showed its cracks. First, the Church reported, that Prime Minister Gakharia paid a visit to the Orthodox Patriarchate office and “assured us that the ban [on public gatherings] is not to be taken literally [by the Church],” said GOC’s spokesperson. Archil Talakvadze, Speaker of the Parliament, also noted in his speech, that the decree did not restrict religious freedoms (Article 16 of the Constitution), saying that participating in religious rites was the inalienable right of the faithful. Furthermore, Deputy Prime Minister Maia Tskitishvili reiterated that the restrictions applied to all citizens.

An apparent communication failure of the Government has sparked an outcry from some of the opposition and many civil society outfits. “The Church should show high social responsibility and observe the law [decree],” commented David Bakradze, leader of the European Georgia Party. Tamta Mikeladze of the EMC, a local rights group, was indignant: “it will cost lives and health of the clergymen, worshipers and other members of our society,” she wrote.

Georgian public health officials, whose professionalism in coping with the crisis was applauded by citizens and media alike have also split on the issue. While Amiran Gamkrelidze, Director of the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) implored the citizens to take the health recommendations “very seriously” and to stand together in building a barrier to the disease, his deputy, Paata Imnadze said he had an impression “that a campaign of persecution against the faithful” was starting in the country and warned against it.

Importantly, many other religious denominations in Georgia have revised rituals and practices due to the pandemic. The Administration of All Georgian Muslims has suspended collective prayers advising adherents to worship at home. The Catholic Church has decided to broadcast Masses and open churches for private worship only. Georgia’s Evangelical-Baptist Church followed the suit, allowing faithful to follow Sunday service via live-streaming.

In the meantime, the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the country’s most revered man, has addressed the congregation today saying: “spiritual purification of the human being has begun. We thank our Lord for his mercy, for he shepherds us into his dominion with great patience. The Lord is great, He is with us and we –  with Him. We must do everything, so that our paths lead to Lord’s dominion. You are told to stand apart – this is one of the small solace that God gave us. But the most important is that we help each other on this path. It is a hard path, but it is for us to travel.” In the end of his sermon, he called on the faithful to regularly spray themselves and their children with holy water to protect from “evil spirits.”

Many doubt whether the tide of the novel coronavirus could be turned until Easter, which falls on April 19 in the Eastern Orthodox realm this year. Thousands of devoted or nominal Christians are expected to flock to churches and cemeteries during the celebrations. Speaking to journalists this evening the head of NCDC said Georgia is now ending its 3rd week since first infection case was documented an is entering “pre-critical” phase, before the disease peaks in 5-7th weeks.

Concerns are mounting that unless the government takes action, public health will be left in God’s hands. For Georgia, this is going to be a test of resolve, and, it seems, of faith.

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