Orthodox Churches disagree on how to worship safely over Easter

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By Daniel Bellamy  with AP
Orthodox priest conducting church service in Moscow for online worshippers
Orthodox priest conducting church service in Moscow for online worshippers   -  Copyright  AP

Orthodox churches in Russia and Ukraine have sent mixed signals to congregations over whether or not they can attend Easter services this weekend.

It comes as their governments are issuing their own advice on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Orthodox Easter is celebrated this week, culminating in Easter Sunday on 19 April.

On Tuesday, the head of the Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Metropolitan Onufriy, urged believers to stay home and watch televised Easter services, but he also said they could come and pray outside churches while maintaining social distancing.

The rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine criticized Onufriy's statement Thursday, with its leader, Archbishop Yevstratiy, saying that it was a "Christian duty" to take care of others and stay home amid the pandemic.

In an apparent effort to prevent believers from gathering, local authorities in the city of Dnipro this week dug a hole outside the entrance to a church yard.

Ukraine has registered 4,161 coronavirus cases, including 116 deaths.

Meanwhile in Russia, Orthodox leaders initially seemed reluctant to impose restrictions.

When authorities in St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, banned church visits on 26 March, the Moscow Patriarchate condemned the move as an infringement on religious freedom.

Only three days later did Patriarch Kirill publicly urge believers to "strictly obey the regulations imposed by the health authorities" and "refrain from church visits."

Since then, however, some local Russian church leaders have called the restrictions unconstitutional and have announced that they would welcome small numbers of parishioners to Easter services on Saturday night.

During a press conference before Easter weekend on Friday, a church spokesperson explained that it was up to local clergy to decide whether to allow public services to proceed after consulting with local health authorities.

One clergyman who has criticized the restrictions is Archbishop Pitirim of Syktyvkar and Komi. In a social media post last week, he called on the Orthodox community to legally challenge orders to close churches on health grounds. He has since said that he would allow dozens of "volunteers" to attend an Easter service he will lead in his parish in the city of Syktyvkar.

"Faith helps develop an immunity that protects," he explained.

Other Russian cities like Moscow have placed strict restrictions on movements and public gatherings that are all but guaranteed to prevent congregations from gathering on Easter.

In these conditions, many have turned to to the internet and video conference prayers, planning to watch Easter services online.