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Georgian Church refuses to change Communion ritual despite coronavirus fears

10 March 2020
The rite of Holy Communion at an Orthodox Church in Georgia. Photo: Karibche.

The Georgian Orthodox Church has refused to change the tradition of using a shared spoon to conduct Holy Communion despite warnings from health officials that it could increase the spread of the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, Georgia’s National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) confirmed that the Church had asked them to disinfect their churches. 

The measures are understood to have been requested to combat the spread of the coronavirus, which has currently infected 15 known persons in Georgia.

The news came as the Church faces mounting public pressure over their insistence on using a common spoon for parishioners to sip wine, which is regarded as the blood of Jesus Christ, during the Holy Communion ritual. 

Health officials have suggested the Church use disposable spoons instead, to avoid the spread of the virus. 

Coronavirus is spread through breathing in or absorbing in any other way the droplets emitted from the nose or mouth of an infected person.

NCDC head Amiran Gamkrelidze confirmed on 1 March that they had instructed the Church to take preventive measures two weeks earlier, but added that they could not intervene in ‘religious nuances’. 

On 29 February, facing growing public concern, the Church made it clear they did not intend to change the practice. 

‘The tradition of using a spoon in communion dates back thousands of years. Throughout these years, there have been many cases of life-threatening infections, during which Orthodox believers did not fear but strived even harder to get communion through a common chalice’, they said in a statement.

In his Sunday sermon on 1 March, Church Head Patriarch Ilia II said that the spread of the coronavirus ‘woudn’t happen without God’s will’. He also shared what he said was a vivid dream he had which he called a ‘sign’ of victory over the virus. 

In an earlier sermon in February, before the first case of the virus was confirmed in Georgia, Ilia II insisted ‘it wasn’t an accident that a disease spread all over the world is not in Georgia’, adding that this was ‘God's will’. 

On 3 March, Georgian Archpriest Nikoloz Pachuashvili told journalists that the wine used during the Communion was ‘antiseptic’, and therefore did not pose danger to others.

There is no scientific evidence to support the claim. 

Critics of the Church have invoked the case of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in South Korea as a warning example. A 61-year-old churchgoer in the city of Daegu neglected doctor’s recommendations and spread the virus by attending religious rituals. 

Roman Gotsiridze, an MP from the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party, was among those expressing concern.

‘Why can’t disposable spoons be used during communion? […] It’s not an easy choice for the Church to make but taking this bold step would be progressive’, Gotsiridze wrote on Facebook on 31 January. 

According to recent surveys, the Georgian Orthodox Church remains the most trusted institution in overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian Georgia. 

However, CRRC Georgia’s December survey, commissioned by the National Democratic Institute, found a 14% drop in approval for the Church’s performance — down to 50% from 64% in July. In April 2015, the figure stood at 75%.

Coronavirus spread in Georgia

Among the 15 people confirmed to be infected in Georgia, 14 are being treated in Tbilisi’s Infectious Diseases Hospital, with one in ‘serious condition’. The authorities say 178 others are in quarantine and 65 are being closely monitored in hospitals.

From the 15 confirmed cases, at least 12 contracted the virus in Italy or from someone who had returned from Italy, while at least two had come from Iran.

Health officials have warned to expect more confirmed cases of infection. 

On 10 March, Georgia’s Interagency Coordination Council under Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia issued a ‘categorical warning’ to those instructed by the health authorities to self-isolate.

Health authorities have instructed those who they suspect may have been infected but without showing initial symptoms to stay indoors and limit their interaction with others for two weeks. 

These include those who are known to have travelled on an aeroplane together with an infected person, like Otar Danelia, an MP who recently returned from Istanbul.  

Other public officials in self-isolation include deputy environmental minister Iuri Nozadze and deputy economy minister Genadi Arveladze.

On Tuesday, the government said they would evacuate 200 Georgian citizens from Italy, which imposed a nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis on 9 March. 

Georgia’s Health Ministry confirmed the first case of the Coronavirus in Georgia on 26 February.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that communion wine is a symbol of the blood of Jesus Christ. According to Orthodox beliefs, the communion wine turns into the blood of Christ during Holy Mass.

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