Greece’s Orthodox Church said on Monday it would defy a government lockdown order imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus and open churches to the faithful during the Epiphany celebration on January 6.
The decision was made following an emergency session of the Holy Synod, the Greek Orthodox Church’s governing body.
“The synod does not agree with the new government measures regarding the operation of places of worship and insists on what was originally agreed with the state,” the ecclesiastical body said in a statement.
“It asks that the aforementioned decision be absolutely respected by the state without further ado taking into consideration… that all the foreseen hygiene measures were upheld by clerics in thousands of churches across Greece.”
The announcement marks a rare show of dissent by Church authorities, which until now have largely respected government restrictions curbing religious services, along with other public activities, during the pandemic.
Before the holiday season Athens’ centre-right government had said it would relax curbs and permit all places of worship to conduct services, albeit with limited congregations, on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and the Epiphany.
But with the country’s health system under pressure after a surge in coronavirus cases, the administration rescinded the decision on Sunday saying restrictions eased over the festive period would be reimposed until January 11.
In response to this dissent, a government official said lockdown laws applied to everyone equally and that the Greek Church cannot “cherry-pick” among the health rules and restrictions.
“We hope that the Church will realise the urgency of these times for society, as it has responsibly done so far,” the official said, noting that the government has sought dialogue with the Church at all stages of the pandemic, showing “respect for public health and people’s faith.”
Epiphany, which officially marks the end of the Christmas holidays, is one of the most important religious festivals in the Greek Orthodox calendar.