Faithfuls attend a service for Orthodox Epiphany celebrations, after Holy Synod rejected government decision to close churches on Epiphany day, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Athens, Greece, January 6, 2021. [Costas Baltas/Reuters]
Greek Christian churches held Epiphany services on Wednesday, openly defying government coronavirus restrictions that banned public gatherings including religious ceremonies on one of the most important days of the Orthodox calendar.
Despite a plea by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for Church authorities to set an example during a crisis that has killed more than 5,000 in Greece, worshippers attended morning services, although limits were placed on the number allowed into churches at one time.
"State orders are one thing and faith is another," said a 38-year-old worshipper who gave her name as Stavroula, after attending morning service at a church on the outskirts of Athens. "No law can order us what to do."
Police stood outside a number of churches but said they would not interfere with services and would use "mild" measures to persuade people not to crowd inside. However, as crowds built up outside some churches, they toughened their tone, shouting through megaphones, telling people to stay away.
The approach underlined the reluctance of Mitsotakis' conservative government to seek confrontation with the influential Orthodox Church, which plays a central role in Greek public life.
On Sunday, authorities extended public lockdown measures, effectively withdrawing permission which had been granted previously to hold Epiphany services with a maximum of 50 people in attendance in large churches and 25 in smaller ones.
On Monday, in a rare show of dissent by Church authorities who have largely respected coronavirus restrictions, Synod leaders wrote to the government to say there was no justification for preventing Epiphany services.
A popular ritual in which swimmers retrieve a cross thrown into the water by a priest has been banned this year but in the port area of Piraeus, Reuters TV footage showed a priest blessing the waters with a cross which was kissed by a small number of masked worshippers.
"If a priest goes with a cleric to bless the waters without there being any people, what would be the problem?" said church attendant Suzanna Mousteloglou. "Who would have an issue?"
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Epiphany is one of the most important religious feasts, commemorating the baptism of Christ and the revelation of the Holy Trinity.
While Greece has been more successful than many European countries in containing the coronavirus, its struggling health services have been badly weakened by years of financial crisis. In recent weeks it has been battling significant Covid clusters in northern Greece and western Attica near the capital Athens.