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Orthodox Easter: churches largely empty amid coronavirus pandemic

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Russian Orthodox Church nuns, observe social distancing guidelines as they attend an Orthodox Easter service at Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Sunday, April 19, 2020
Russian Orthodox Church nuns, observe social distancing guidelines as they attend an Orthodox Easter service at Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Sunday, April 19, 2020   -   Copyright  Oleg Varov, Russian Orthodox Church Press Service via AP
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More than 260 million Orthodox Christians are celebrating Easter under exceptional conditions, encouraged by the authorities to stay at home to limit coronavirus contagion.

However, gatherings have still gone ahead. On Holy Saturday, liturgies were held in churches and cathedrals across the globe. Orthodox priests in much of Europe held services in empty churches due to lockdowns currently in place in most countries.

Many services were broadcast live and people also lit candles and took to their balconies to mark one of the most important events in the Orthodox Christian calendar. Easter this year is being celebrated one week after Catholics and Protestants, who adhere to a different calendar.

Russia

Orthodox churches across Russia -- where Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion -- celebrated Easter in overnight services that were largely absent of worshippers due to the restrictions on gatherings tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

All churches in greater Moscow, St. Petersburg and many Russian regions have been closed since Monday, although some churches in remote regions were expected to have services with parishoners attending.

At Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral the service was attended by a small group of clergymen and featured a traditional procession and divine liturgy commemorating the day followers believe that Jesus was resurrected nearly 2,000 years ago.

Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill said: "It isn't because of ill human will, and not because our people have lost their faith, as happens in some places that are far from us, but because a terrible disease has touched our people."

By Sunday morning Russia had recorded 36,793 cases of the virus and 313 deaths, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Oleg Varov, Russian Orthodox Church Press Service via AP
Orthodox Easter at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, early Sunday, April 19, 2020.Oleg Varov, Russian Orthodox Church Press Service via AP

Ukraine

Police were deployed outside hundreds of churches in Ukraine to ensure that anyone who came to stand outside a service observed regulations calling for social distancing and banning large gatherings.

A small exception was made at the Pechersk monastery in Kyiv, where police allowed worshippers to enter the church one at a time, with the next person going inside when another left. About 100 people stood outside the monastery waiting to be let in.

The monastery, a major tourist attraction because of its extensive system of caves and catacombs, was closed under quarantine; more than 90 of its monks have been identified as infected with coronavirus and at least two have died.

The monastery belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is loyal to to the Russian Orthodox Church and is one of two rival Orthodox denominations denominations in Ukraine. The church’s leader drew criticism after suggesting that worshippers could gather outside while services were conducted rather than staying at home.

Greece

Greeks celebrated the resurrection of Christ very differently on Saturday night, confined at home due to coronavirus restrictions instead of congregating in churches.

Greece is under lockdown as the country tries to prevent the spread of the virus and the government had warned faithful to stay away from churches.

Many in the northern port city of Thessaloniki and around Greece stepped out on their balconies at the stroke of midnight with lit candles to mark the resurrection.

The threat of a fine for violating the lockdown measures did not stop some faithful who stood outside St. Demetrios Church in Thessaloniki with lit candles, while the church bells rang at midnight.

Greece has recorded 2,235 confirmed cases of the virus and 110 deaths as of Sunday morning, according to Johns Hopkins University.

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
People hold candles on their balcony in Athens, Greece, during Greek Orthodox Easter celebrations, early Sunday, April 19, 2020.AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Bulgaria

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has resisted calls to close churches for Easter, the most significant holiday in the Orthodox calendar, despite the coronavirus pandemic continuing to spread across the world.

However, following demands by health authorities it urged worshipers to pray at home rather than going to church.

Outside the golden-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the capital Sofia on Saturday the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Neophyte, led the festive midnight mass with only few dozen worshippers attending.

At the Holy Saturday liturgy in Sofia clergymen chanted prayers that echoed around the almost empty square.

The main Easter services will be broadcast live on television.

While only ten percent of Bulgaria's population of 7 million are regular weekly church-goers, Easter normally makes an exception and thousands of people cram into the churches.

As of Sunday morning Bulgaria has reported 884 confirmed cases of the virus and 42 deaths according to Johns Hopkins University.

AP Photo/Valentina Petrova
Believers are seen behind police line and bars as they attend midnight Easter Orthodox mass in front of Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, Sunday, April 19, 2020.AP Photo/Valentina Petrova

Romania

Romania celebrated Easter despite closed churches and amid restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bucharest was a deserted city on Saturday night as priests held a religious service in the Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral without any attendees.

In small town of Baicoi, about 90 kilometres (56 miles) north of Bucharest, priests accompanied by volunteers distributed the Holy Fire to those participating in religious celebrations in the week leading to the Orthodox Easter, within the constraints of the restrictions imposed by the government.

With police and army checkpoints on national roads as well as most of the boulevards in cities across Romania, the faithful listened to the religious services either on television or through the church's loudspeakers.

Turkey

In Turkey another weekend curfew has been imposed to halt the spread of coronavirus, forcing worshippers to remain behind closed doors.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople announced earlier that services would be closed to the public and streamed on the internet.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, led a liturgy at St. George's Cathedral in Istanbul.

Cyprus

In Cyprus, many Orthodox faithful stood on their balconies or front porches with lighted candles as clergymen officiating midnight Easter Service in empty churches chanted “Christ is Risen."

Cypriots observed Easter services from their televisions at home following a government-imposed ban on worshippers attending church services that’s part of a strict stay-at-home order.

AP Photo/Petros Karadjias
Orthodox Christian faithful in self-isolation stand on their balconies to celebrate in midnight Easter services in Lakatamia, Nicosia, Cyprus, Saturday, April 18, 2020.AP Photo/Petros Karadjias

Georgia

Although the government has imposed a curfew to combat the coronavirus, an exception has been made for the influential Orthodox Church.

The faithful attended an Orthodox Easter service in Tbilisi Holy Trinity Cathedral on Saturday.

The bigger churches around the country have been open to worshippers, but only if they committed to arriving before the country's 9 pm. curfew begins and remaining there until the curfew lifts at 6 am.

Special marks were placed on the floor so that people would observe distancing.

Police officers were controlling the entrances to the Cathedral and other churches around Georgia to ensure residents were obeying the state of emergency that is in force until May 10.

Georgian authorities stepped up preventive measures days before the Easter Holiday to avoid large gatherings of people.

All entrances to the five major cities were blocked and movement of cars prohibited throughout Georgia. A campaign urging people to stay home has also been widely advertised in media.

The Georgian prime minister and president have made special addresses calling for people to observe social distancing and stay home.

AP Photo/Zurab Tsertsvadze
A small numbers of Georgian Orthodox Church worshippers, observe social distancing guidelines at the Trinity cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia, Saturday, April 18, 2020.AP Photo/Zurab Tsertsvadze

Middle East

Egypt

Pope Tawadros II, the spiritual leader of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians, has held Easter services in an empty monastery in the desert amid coronavirus restrictions which kept the faithful from gathering at churches and monasteries across the country.

The services were held at the Monastery of Saint Pishoy, in a desert valley west of Cairo known as Wadi Natrun. Few clergies attended the services, which aired on Coptic Orthodox television station. The clerics were seen practicing social distancing during the prayers.

The Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, decided this month to suspend Easter prayers and celebrations at churches and monasteries because of the spread of the virus.

Christians constitute around 10% of Egypt’s more than 100 million predominantly Muslim population. Egypt has 3,032 cases including 224 deaths, as of Sunday morning.

Jerusalem

A handful of Eastern Orthodox priests held mass for the Christian holiday of Easter on Sunday in an empty Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Travel restrictions imposed by Israel to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have prevented the arrival of pilgrims to Jerusalem for the springtime holiday and limited the gathering of worshippers at the church.

Easter mass was performed by a small group of clergy at the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was entombed. The square outside was empty, the church's large wooden doors barred shut, but a few individual worshipers came to pray outside.

Israel has recorded over 13,000 COVID-19 cases and over 170 deaths.

Bethlehem

One of the most sacred Easter symbols of the Christian Orthodox faith - the Holy Fire - arrived in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Saturday.

But the coronavirus outbreak meant only a top group of Eastern Orthodox clerics were able to receive it.

AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
A volunteer wearing a protective outfit distributes holy light in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday, April 18, 2020.AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda