Georgians sidestep virus curfew to go to Easter mass

Tbilisi (AFP) –


Hundreds attended Orthodox Easter celebrations in Georgia on Sunday despite a curfew imposed as a containment measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Georgia has declared a state of emergency, imposed a lockdown, a night curfew and a ban on gatherings of more than three people in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.

But bowing to pressure from politically influential religious authorities, the government allowed Easter services to go ahead.

Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, the head of Georgia's Orthodox Apostolic Church, led a service in Tbilisi's Holy Trinity Cathedral, one of the world's biggest Orthodox Christian churches.

Around two hundred believers attended the solemn service that included ancient Georgian chants -- recognised on UNESCO's global intangible heritage list.

Chanting "Christ is risen!" the parishioners held a procession around the perimeter of the cathedral as bells rang out.

"With the Lord's help, thanks to the efforts of our doctors and the authorities, the pandemic has not led to grave consequences in our country," the octogenarian Patriarch said.

"By God's will, Georgia and the entire world will soon overcome this trial."

The small Black Sea nation has reported 388 virus cases and four deaths, one of the lowest rates in Europe, but medics warn its health service could not cope with a large outbreak.

In the Church of the Transfiguration in Tbilisi, 58-year-old accountant Lamara Zhvania, said she attended the Easter mass "to pray for the coronavirus ordeal to end soon".

"I could have stayed at home and watched the service on television, but only here in this holy church can I find true comfort," she told AFP.

Georgia's leading doctors expressed outrage at the decision to go ahead with Easter celebrations -- which usually attract huge crowds of believers, -- saying they could fuel the spread of the coronavirus.

In an emotional televised statement, deputy director of Georgia's National Centre for Disease Control, Paata Imnadze, asked people "not to go to churches," warning "the toll will be enormous, we will not survive if we don't stay home."

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili and Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said last week they would not be attending the celebrations, breaking long-standing tradition.

Health Minister Ekaterine Tikaradze admitted last week Georgia's hospitals do not have enough intensive care doctors to treat thousands of patients in a serious condition.