Greek Church defies virus advice to mark Epiphany

Athens (AFP) –


Christians flocked to churches in Greece to celebrate the Epiphany on Wednesday, after the Orthodox Church rejected government coronavirus restrictions.

Ministers had urged places of worship to stay shut but the Church refused and instead agreed only to curtail some of its rituals.

Worshippers seen by AFP photographers broadly respected social distance and wore masks but many queued to receive communion, a practice experts have warned could be a crucial way of spreading the virus.

Greeks have been living under tight restrictions since November but the virus has continued to circulate -- most of the country's 5,000 deaths have occurred in the past two months.

The government had slightly relaxed some rules over Christmas but shut non-essential shops and places of worship again last week.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday urged the Orthodox Church to "assume its responsibilities" by closing places of worship.

But his failure to impose an outright ban on religious services sparked criticism from opponents.

While left-wing Syriza accused the government of giving in to the Church and called its management of virus restrictions "a theatre of the absurd", centre-left Kinal said ministers were in retreat and the Church was "endangering people's lives".

Priests have faced repeated criticism for failing to respect health restrictions, being seen in public not wearing masks or ignoring social distancing rules.

However, Father Maximos, a priest in an Athens suburb, told AFP the Church was not trying to provoke conflicts and blamed the controversy on "the media, which are at the origin of disinformation".

The Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the three kings to see baby Jesus in western tradition, but eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate it as the baptism of Jesus.

It is one of the three major feast days in the Orthodox Church's calendar.