Russian clerics raise eyebrows over coronavirus

A believer sanitises an icon case in the Church of St Alexius, Moscow, March 2020 Image copyright Mikhail Tereshchenko\TASS via Getty Images
Image caption Russian churches are sanitising icons

The Russian Orthodox Church has faced criticism over the attitude of some of its clerics to the coronavirus outbreak.

The head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, ended his Sunday service this week with the hope that the crisis might prompt people to turn to God.

"We should look at the situation through the prism of spiritual knowledge… Here is a chance to think not about God's wrath but rather about God's blessing," he said, adding that "God is calling on our self-confident technological civilisation to understand its fragility," according to the RIA Novosti news agency.

But many social media users are unimpressed by the idea of holding crowded services at all at such a time, "especially given that many old people go to church", as academic Maxim Mironov said.

'Mass psychosis'

Popular priest Andrei Tkachev caused more of a stir with his Sunday sermon, when he appeared before the congregation wearing a gas mask.

He removed it amid laughter from his parishioners, before declaring that they should "laugh at this nasty devilish thing" and "switch off the television, then there will be no coronavirus".

The video was first posted on Instagram by pro-Kremlin journalist Roman Golovanov, and later removed - but not before it had gone viral on social media and caused uproar in the press.

The priest, who has more than 400,000 YouTube followers, refused to back down in the face of what he called "mass psychosis", and even repeated a conspiracy theory in an interview with the Gazeta.ru news site that the virus was developed "in some military lab".

But Father Tkachev may yet change his mind, as the Orthodox Church's chief spokesman, Bishop Hilarion, later issued an official statement criticising the gas mask stunt as "irony designed to make the congregation laugh at those who fear infection".

"Many people in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, for example, do not see the funny side," the bishop concluded, according to RIA Novosti.

The bishop himself had come in for criticism earlier in the month for saying that churches do not need to close, and the virus cannot be transmitted by communion, insisting that if necessary the Church could use disposable spoons.

This followed a public row about 70,000 people kissing the purported relics of John the Baptist in St Petersburg in the course of a week, amid media allegations of lax hygiene requirements.

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Russia isn't the only country where some Orthodox clerics have fallen short of expected behaviour over coronavirus.

Several churches in Serbia held Sunday services, despite a call by the head of the Church, Patriarch Irinej, to obey the government ban on gatherings of more than five people, the Insajder news site reported.

'Church is a different matter'

A senior cleric in Georgia, Bishop Ioane of Rustavi, said the authorities should pursue "quarantine dodgers" rather than "people who want to be with God".

"We aren't forcing anyone to go to church, but we aren't stopping people either," he said, according to the tabula.ge news site.

And in Ukraine, one Facebook user complained that the police refused to halt a church service in the city of Rivne, despite there being more than 10 worshippers present receiving communion from one vessel.

The officers "saw no crime", telling bystanders that "the church is a different matter".

Image copyright Alexei Andronov/TASS via Getty Images
Image caption Some churches are providing disposable cups for holy water

Reporting by Yaroslava Kiryukhina and Martin Morgan

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