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Traditions were upended last Sunday when most of the Christian world celebrated Easter from home amid the coronavirus pandemic. While the majority of congregations watched livestreams of their churches’ Easter services, some Americans risked the pews to experience the liturgy in person, fueling a heated partisan debate over freedom of religion. But Easter services—and the controversies around them—aren’t done just yet. Eastern Orthodox Christians are currently in the middle of their Holy Week, with Easter Sunday still days away. In Eastern Europe, where most Orthodox Christians live, the abiding importance of Easter celebrations is testing strict public health measures and lockdowns.
The majority of Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar, established by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C., as opposed to the more modern (1582) Gregorian calendar. By that calendar, Orthodox Easter always falls between April 4 and May 8, while Catholic and Protestant Easter falls between March 22 and April 25. On rare years, as in 2017, the dates align.
This year’s Easter poses a particular challenge to Orthodox countries, where it’s one of the biggest holidays of the year. Even as Eastern European societies have become increasingly secular—or at least less observant—throngs of people each year still attend midnight Easter vigils, which feature the most elaborate rituals of the religious calendar. These services are not only religious ceremonies but also cultural celebrations of national importance. In many Eastern European countries, Orthodox Christianity and national identity are intertwined. In 2017, for instance, the Pew Research Center found that 76 percent of Greeks say being Orthodox is important to being “truly Greek.” And the Georgian Orthodox Church is considered that country’s most influential institution.
As Easter approaches, some of the Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe are maintaining their countries’ strict lockdowns. The Church of Greece has urged worshippers to stay away from Holy Week services, which are only open to clergy and cantors. Easter celebrations in the country’s churches have been moved to May 26, provided COVID-19 restrictions are lifted by then. “It will not be a celebration of Easter but the celebration of the ceremony,” a statement by the country’s Holy Synod clarified. The Greek government also imposed tighter travel restrictions ahead of the Easter holidays, which aligns with the country’s vigilance so far and relative success with flattening the curve.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox church hierarchies in Romania and Serbia have accepted the ban on public gatherings (though prominent Orthodox figures from both countries have been imploring the government to allow exceptions). Russia has maintained a somewhat strict policy in Moscow only: Churches throughout the country have remained open, except in the capital and its surrounding region, where the Russian Orthodox Church ordered temples to close their doors for “big numbers of people” during Holy Week.
But the Orthodox churches of other countries are disregarding national guidelines. While President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has urged Ukrainians to celebrate from home, some churches have not yet shuttered, even as a 1,000-year-old Orthodox monastery, which held public church services, has become a COVID-19 hots pot with more than 90 confirmed cases. (As of January 2019, Ukraine split from Russia’s Orthodox Church and has its own autonomous church.) Ukrainian authorities have, however, started requiring people to wear masks in public in time for Holy Week. Similarly, while the Bulgarian government has urged people not to attend services, it hasn’t banned them, and churches remain open even as Sofia has closed bars, restaurants, and schools, and restricted access to parks and travel. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has, at least, agreed not to distribute palm branches.
The most contentious debate over Easter is occurring in Georgia, where the church has refused to listen to the government. It’s continued to hold crowded services around the country and plans to proceed with Easter as usual—shared communion chalices and all—despite the fact that Georgia has been in a state of emergency since March 21, which bans public gatherings of three or more people, and has had a 9 p.m. curfew since March 31. According to JAMnews, the authorities have traditionally feared crossing the country’s influential Orthodox Church—and they’re especially concerned with important parliamentary elections coming this fall. Still, Open Caucasus Media reported, Georgian Health Minister Ekaterine Tikaradze has tried to reassure Georgians that attending church now is not a spiritual obligation. “God is everywhere,” Tikaradze said.
In the middle of a pandemic, attending Easter service may not be an obligation, but it does provide comfort for many—not least the elderly, who in most of these countries are more religious, more accustomed to religious ceremony, and more vulnerable to COVID-19. As the pandemic unfolds, we’re seeing tradition (and mere habit) at serious odds with public health again and again. And despite the serious health risks, those traditions are hard for people to sacrifice.
For more on the impact of COVID-19, listen to Thursday’s What Next.