Home International News New COVID-19 surge has East European churches struggling

New COVID-19 surge has East European churches struggling

Patients are pictured at the COVID-19 ward of St. Anna hospital in Sofia, Bulgaria, Oct. 19, 2021. (CNS photo/Stoyan Nenov, Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — As governments across Europe reimpose curbs to counter a winter spike in the coronavirus, church leaders are urging citizens in less-protected eastern countries to cooperate with health campaigns.

A 10% rise in fatalities, mainly from the delta variant, was reported across Europe in the first week of November, amid World Health Organization warnings the continent could see half a million die in coming months. Many institutions, including universities, are requiring 3G certificates — proving people are vaccinated, recovered from COVID-19 or tested — as a condition for entry and participation.

Hospitals are reported inundated in Bulgaria, where less than a quarter of citizens have been vaccinated, as well as in neighboring Romania, which currently has the world’s highest per capita COVID-19 death rate.

In an Oct. 30 statement, the Orthodox Archdiocese of Bucharest said it had accepted a Romanian Health Ministry request and opened chapels as temporary mortuaries, while Romania’s Eastern Catholic bishops urged Christians in an Oct. 29 message to “pray, get vaccinated and strictly observe all necessary measures.”

In a Nov. 17 interview with Catholic News Service, the secretary-general of Romania’s Latin-rite Catholic bishops’ conference, Msgr. Francisc Ungureanu, said his church’s dioceses had listed help centers, at government request, on their websites, adding that all bishops and most priests had accepted the vaccines as a “necessity for working with people.”

“Many clergy have been ill with the virus and are still not fully recovered, but we’re confident the situation will improve,” Msgr. Ungureanu said.

“We were ready from the pandemic’s first days and made our church facilities available for help and solidarity for the sick. People accept the safety measures which remain obligatory in our churches, and there’s no suggestion vaccination certificates should be made compulsory.”

In Poland, restrictions on Mass attendance were lifted in the summer, after Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, the bishops’ conference president, accused the government of violating the constitution and treating the church worse than under communist rule.

However, in Austria, where a lockdown was ordered Nov. 15 for all nonvaccinated people over age 12, the bishops’ conference tightened its rules Nov. 13, making masks mandatory along with new disinfectant, ventilation and distancing measures.

Although the Austrian government’s new COVID-19 protective measures ordinance exempts “gatherings for the practice of religion,” anyone conducting services must now hold a 3G certificate, while rules on singing, confessions and Communion have been tightened under detailed church guidelines.

In neighboring Slovakia, church websites provide information on nationwide risk levels, while the bishops urged citizens in a Nov. 14 message to get vaccinated as “a concrete and mature expression of faith in God.”

“Our Christian community should take the right position at this important time — as the Holy Father has said, vaccination is a manifestation of neighborly love,” the message added. “We urge priests to spread the right message and encourage vaccination while adhering to hygiene rules. This is also a real manifestation of our conscious, consistent attitude to life.”

In Ukraine, where less than a fifth of the population of 43.3 million is fully vaccinated, the Ukrainian Catholic Church opened Resurrection Cathedral in Kyiv as a vaccination center Nov. 7 and offered treatment space at churches in five other cities. The country’s Orthodox and Adventist churches have since made similar offers, in what Health Minister Viktor Lyashko praised Nov. 16 as an “example of constructive dialogue and social mission fulfilment.”

Further south in Croatia, Byzantine Bishop Milan Stipic of Krizevci warned of growing divisions over vaccinations among church members in a Nov. 17 pastoral letter and urged Catholics to confront the pandemic by “returning to Christian life values and a truly evangelical way of thinking.”

Bishop Antun Skvorcevic of Pozega, president of Croatia’s Catholic education council, also acknowledged widespread tensions in a Nov. 14 homily and called on citizens to trust medical experts.

“Science and medicine are not absolute — they’re not dogma or the subject of faith, and nor is vaccination,” the bishop said. “But I accept what experts advocate for treating particular diseases, and I respect all those making daily sacrifices in hospitals for the sick. We have no right to ignore their efforts, advocating our own opinion to the point of accepting conspiracy theories.”

In Eastern Europe, vaccine resistance is thought to reflect a lingering post-communist distrust of government directives. Infection rates are high in Russia, as a bill making vaccinations obligatory for medical staff and teachers passes through the State Duma.

In a Nov. 2 statement, the Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate warned against making vaccinations “a factor of national division,” adding that said the church would not require vaccination certificates.

However, in Greece, where unvaccinated citizens must present a negative test to enter shops and restaurants, the Orthodox Church ordered unvaccinated clergy and parish staffers to undergo two tests weekly and “paternally urged” Christians to get tested before attending services.