Greek Church to allow worshippers at Easter Week services

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Two men wearing protective face masks play chess in Alimos, a seaside suburb of Athens, on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The powerful Church of Greece said Tuesday it would allow the faithful to take part in Orthodox Easter services next week but limit attendance and hold the services earlier in the day to conform with a government-imposed curfew.

The decision comes despite Greece reporting a high number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and as the country’s hospitals are struggling to treat unprecedented numbers of intubated patients. Orthodox Easter services were canceled last year, when Greece had much fewer confirmed cases.

At the same time, the center-right government is under pressure to lift travel restrictions ahead of the Easter holidays, while thousands of people in Athens have flouted infection-control restrictions by holding all-night open-air parties in city squares amid warm, spring weather.

The Church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, said after a virtual meeting Tuesday that worshippers “must by no means be deprived of participation in the joy of the Resurrection,” normally celebrated with a midnight service late on Holy Saturday.

This year, services will start in church courtyards at 9 p.m. on May 1, followed by a liturgy indoors. The timing would allow worshippers to be home in time for the 10 p.m. curfew. Services will also start earlier on other days during Holy Week, which starts Monday, and indoor attendance at Greece’s churches will be limited to one person per 25 square meters (270 square feet), reaching a maximum of 100.

The decision is still subject to government approval. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed the issue Monday at a meeting with the Church of Greece’s leader, Archbishop Ieronymos II.

Orthodox Easter is the most popular date on Greece’s religious calendar. Large crowds flock to Holy Week services, join in candle-lit mourning processions on Good Friday, and often rowdy Resurrection celebrations accompany church services at midnight on Holy Saturday.

The Church of Greece was prevailed upon to hold Easter services without public attendance last year, when daily COVID-19 infections were in the double digits — compared to about 3,800 recorded Tuesday — and the virus-related deaths reported daily were in the single digits, compared to 87 on Tuesday.

Greece, which has a population of under 11 million, has confirmed a total of nearly 320,000 cases and about 9,600 deaths, while some 850 people are intubated in intensive care units.

While many non-essential shops have been allowed to reopen, most schoolchildren still attend classes remotely. Restaurants and bars are closed and long-distance travel is not allowed.

The government hopes to restart the vital tourism season in mid-May. On Monday, quarantine restrictions were lifted for travelers from most European countries, as well as Israel, the United States and the United Arab Emirates. Air travelers from those countries will no longer undergo a seven-day quarantine if they hold a vaccination certificate or negative PCR test issued within the previous 72 hours.

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