Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow lashed out at his clergy, demanding that they obey government orders to stop services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kirill’s latest demands starkly contrast with his public statements from last month, when he defied Russian authorities’ orders to close all churches.
But many believe the Patriarch’s orders come too late.
In a statement published on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website, Patriarch Kirill said that hierarchs, clergy and monks bear personal responsibility for observing safety requirements during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Patriarch warned that priests who ignore his instructions will be brought before church tribunals.
But his warning came much later than most Orthodox Christian Churches in the world, and delays in imposing strict measures have cost the Russian Church dearly. The church has seen the deaths of numerous high profile bishops, clergy and monks.
Unlike most Orthodox Churches elsewhere in Europe and the West, the Russian Church and many of its satellite churches ignored initial threats of the coronavirus and refused to close.
In stark contrast to the Russian Church’s delays, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople ordered churches under his jurisdiction closed as early as March 18. Churches in Greece and elsewhere also closed under government order, and some voluntarily, as was the case on the island of Crete.
Furthermore, the Russian Church provided disparate information to its faithful and enforced conflicting rules.
The church lost valuable time during February and March, as it neither implemented nor enforced a common policy among its scattered flock.
As early as March 26, local church leaders in St. Petersburg announced a ban on parishioners attending services. But the Moscow Patriarchate overruled the move and demanded that doors stay open.
When the Russian Church eventually did impose strict hygiene measures, including restricting faithful from kissing holy icons or reusing the common spoon used to serve communion, many scoffed and called it “heresy” to deny the holy sacrament.
“Rebel” priests refused medical advice, calling on their faithful to defy authorities and have faith in God, who they said would protect them from the virus.
During Holy Week, churches in Russia remained open despite officials’ recommendations to close. Some churches encouraged social distancing during services, but most television footage and social media posts showed very few following guidelines. Instead, worshippers gathered in close quarters and crowds.
The outcome has been devastating to the Russian Church.
Several monasteries in Russia and in Ukraine, which are under the authority of the Russian Patriarchate, have become contagion hotspots with dozens of priests and monks infected and hospitalized.
Among those hotspots is the famous Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, or “Monastery of the Caves,” located in the heart of the Ukrainian capital. The monastery has reported three fatalities and more than 140 cases.
Several high-ranking officials from the Patriarchate have also been reported sick.
At one Metropolis in the Ural Mountains, Metropolitan Grigorij of Chelyabinsk was hospitalized, along with a dozen priests and many members of their families, all of whom celebrated Easter together at the Cathedral of San Simeone. Only after his hospitalization did the Metropolitan decide to close his churches.
The death of Bishop Benjamin of Zheleznogorsk and Lgovsky, a high-profile hierarch of the Russian Patriarchate, was the tipping point for Patriarch Kirill.
Featured photo: Believers queue to kiss a cross as they attend the Orthodox Easter service at the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Donetsk, Ukraine
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