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Mount Athos elders trust God and science to protect them from Covid

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In the chapel of a monastery on Greece’s Mount Athos, Father Makarios read the gospel while conducting a liturgy as he waited for his anti-coronavirus vaccination.

He knows when to separate religion from science, he says.

“I did have some thoughts about whether [the vaccination] is needed. Of course we have faith in God and God protects us,” said the 70-year-old monk, who said he had “approached death” after catching Covid-19.

“But science is something in the hands of God, God enlightens the scientists so they can protect humanity,” he said.

Mount Athos is one of the Orthodox Church’s most sacred religious sites. The coronavirus has spread like wildfire and a drive is on to vaccinate the some 1,600 monks in the closed community on northern Greece’s Halkidiki peninsula.

Nine have died since the start of the pandemic and many in the 20 monasteries have been infected. But vaccination rates remain at about 40% and a relaxation of safety measures has escalated the problem at the popular visitors’ site.

Between October and November, at least 100 cases were recorded, said Giorgos Miteloudis, a doctor at the Mount Athos health center.

“It is exceptionally dangerous in a closed community like a monastery, which is basically like a family, where it is difficult for the members of the family to protect themselves from each other,” he said.

After seeing others fall ill or catching the virus themselves, at least 30 monks have stepped up to be vaccinated this month. Many who live on Athos are aged over 70 and they play a special role in the community.

“On Mount Athos the older people are called the elders, the respected elders, they are the guides of spiritual life on Mount Athos. They pass on their personal spiritual wisdom and experiences, even their holiness, and we owe it to protect them,” Miteloudis said.

More than 1,000 years old, the autonomous Orthodox spiritual centre has scores of small living units along with its monasteries, making it hard to keep track of infections.

Encompassing an entire peninsula jutting into the Aegean Sea, it is forbidden to women and children. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Britain’s Prince Charles and several celebrities have made a pilgrimage there.

Athos closed to outside visitors for three months during the last lockdown, reopening this February. Only rapid tests are currently required to enter the site.

But cases in Greece reached new highs this month and hospitals are once again under strain, especially in the north.

For some on the Holy Mountain, vaccinations have been a struggle between science and religion. But Father Epifanios, who came to the health centre for his third vaccination, did not have that dilemma.

“Medicines are medicines, they are not holy water,” he said. [Reuters]