Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia has announced that churches across the country will remain open despite the growing spread of coronavirus in the country. As Easter celebrations approach, it emerged on Tuesday that an Orthodox priest had tested positive for the virus.
The PM said he hoped the public would act responsibly and not go to church but that government would not tell them not to do so.
During the announcement, Gakharia said that Georgia had now ‘fully entered the stage of domestic spread’. As a result, the state of emergency would be extended until 10 May, he said.
The state of emergency bans gatherings of more than three people.
‘Are we an Orthodox state which has thousands of years of experience of collaboration between the church and the state?!’, Gakharia asked rhetorically during the briefing. According to the Georgian constitution, the country has no state religion and is a secular state.
‘We are talking about existential topics both for the church and the government. […] It is an existential issue that the Church should not be closed, which is also understandable’, said Gakharia.
He added that people should take responsibility for their own health and not wait for the clergy to tell them not to go to church, and said the public should not expect such calls from the government either.
On Easter, thousands of churchgoers traditionally attend liturgy and visit cemeteries afterwards. The Government announced on Tuesday that they are considering temporarily closing cemeteries.
Priest tests positive
A Georgian Orthodox priest was admitted to hospital on Monday after he tested positive for COVID-19.
Church spokesperson Andria Jagmaidze told journalists on Tuesday that a church in central Tbilisi’s Vera District, where the infected priest served, had been quarantined and undergone disinfection.
‘For several days the church will be closed for disinfection and then different priests will hold liturgy on Easter because the priests of this church are in self-isolation’, said Jagmaidze.
Giorgi Papapava, the infected priest, told the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) that he held liturgy on 7 April, the day of Annunciation and on the same evening he began to feel symptoms of the virus.
He told the GPB he had had minimal contact with parishioners and that they kept a distance between themselves. However, he later told TV Pirveli that he took part in the ritual of Holy Communion, which means that he drank from the same shared spoon as other parishioners.
The Church has objected to advice from health officials that they use disposable spoons to try to minimise the spread of the coronavirus.
Also on Tuesday, it emerged that a security guard working at the Church’s headquarters, the Patriarchate, had also tested positive for coronavirus.
The man told TV Pirveli that he was in the Patriarchate two days prior and did not know where he could have caught the infection.
‘I don’t know where I caught it. It’s less likely [I caught it] in the Patriarchate because we are safe there. We measure the temperatures of everyone upon entrance. There’s a quarantine too, people don’t just go in. We don’t have contact with people.’
‘Probably I got it in the region, the shop or pharmacy, where I tend to go’, he said.
He added that while he had been in contact with many people this did not include members of the clergy.
Church spokesperson Andria Jagmaidze posted on Facebook that they did not have a guard service but are provided with this service from the government.
As of 14 April, 296 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Georgia; 69 of them have recovered and 3 have died.
There are currently 4,856 people in quarantine and 458 are under observation in hopsital.
Reactions in other Orthodox countries
Orthodox Christian churches around the world have been reluctant to change rituals or to shut their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, many have taken more significant steps to fight the virus than the Georgian Orthodox Church.
In late February, the Romanian Orthodox Church allowed churchgoers to bring their own spoons for the Holy Communion ritual.
On 22 March, they announced that they were not expecting believers to attend church in the early hours of 19 April to mark Easter. They said that clergy planned to be alone in the Churches to conduct rituals.
On 8 April, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis indicated that clergy would be marking Easter but said he would follow Easter liturgy from his home and urged others to do the same.
The Orthodox Church in Greece, meanwhile, has rescheduled public Easter services to the night of 26 May.
In mid-March, the Russian Orthodox Church introduced the practice of disinfecting Communion spoons with alcohol and banned the kissing of icons, though only in their Moscow Eparchy.
On 5 April, three clerics from the Moscow Eparchy were confirmed to have contracted the virus.
Like their Georgian counterpart, the Russian patriarchate also did not halt church services. However, on 29 March, Russian Patriarch Kirill called on believers to refrain from attending services.
The Orthodox Church in Bulgaria took a similar position, and after some public hesitation, kept church doors open but also urged worshipers to avoid actually going to church.
This is a step the Georgian Church has so far been reluctant to take, though some measures have been taken.
On 1 April, the Georgian Patriarchate stated it was acceptable for the elderly and for parishioners who were ‘physically weak’ to miss church services and ordered priests to close churches before curfew.
The path chosen by the Patriarchate in Tbilisi has been similar to that of the Serbian Orthodox Church: both have kept churches open and urged worshippers to observe social distancing while remaining combative towards critics.
In a 23 March communique, the Serbian Church condemned what it called a ‘slanderous campaign’ waged by ‘anti-church and anti-Serbian circles’. In Georgia, Andria Jagmaidze recently accused critics of the Georgian Church of hoping that a ‘Church cluster’ of COVID-19 infections would appear.