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Hegumen Vyacheslav Zhebelev (center) of the Kazan Cathedral in Volgograd ritually blesses a pile of Easter eggs and cakes. April 18, 2020

‘It is impossible to receive any illness through communion’ As a massive post-Easter COVID-19 outbreak spreads through the Russian Orthodox clergy, here’s what high priests are and aren’t doing to stop the disease

Source: Meduza
Hegumen Vyacheslav Zhebelev (center) of the Kazan Cathedral in Volgograd ritually blesses a pile of Easter eggs and cakes. April 18, 2020
Hegumen Vyacheslav Zhebelev (center) of the Kazan Cathedral in Volgograd ritually blesses a pile of Easter eggs and cakes. April 18, 2020
Gennady Gulyayev / Kommersant

Two weeks after Easter services, the novel coronavirus is spreading through the Russian Orthodox Church, infecting increasing numbers of priests, bishops, and metropolitans. At least one church leader, Bishop Veniamin of Zheleznogorsk and Lgov, has already died of COVID-19, and monasteries are rapidly becoming local pandemic hotspots. In an attempt to push back against the disease, Patriarch Kirill has issued an order for the Moscow Diocese warning that any priest who conducts services with members of his congregation present may be penalized by an ecclesiastical court. Meanwhile, Orthodox believers have signed onto a petition asking the Church to disclose how many infections have been confirmed in cathedrals and monasteries that have been closed to the public. Still, a number of vocal dissidents within the Church hierarchy have continued to insist that closing off cathedrals will be even more dangerous than the alternative.

Ecclesiastical courts vs. the coronavirus

On April 27, Patriarch Kirill issued a decree reminding clergymembers in the Moscow Diocese that, “within the cathedrals and monasteries entrusted to them,” they are responsible for limiting the spread of COVID-19 and following pandemic-related regulations. “In the event that a failure to observe these orders and decrees gives rise to the infection of an individual with the coronavirus and that infection leads in turn to the individual’s death, then those at fault may be brought before an ecclesiastical court or subjected to administrative ecclesiastical penalties,” the document warns.

The same day, the Russian Orthodox Church’s new working group for the coronavirus pandemic admitted that “in the early stages of the infection’s spread, not everyone acknowledged it as a serious threat, ignoring warnings from doctors and Church leadership. In individual monasteries and cathedrals, this lead to a large number of infections.”

The prominent Russian biblical expert Andrey Desnitsky, who specializes in Orthodox Christianity, believes Patriarch Kirill is prepared to do more than talk the talk after his latest order. The patriarch, Desnitsky said, is “a strict administrator” who “knows how to punish people and enjoys doing so.” To explain why the patriarch’s administrative rigidity has had little effect so far, the religious expert said, “Not all of Russia’s clergymen paid attention to his initial orders — far from it. The situation turned out something like self-isolation efforts nationwide: at first, those in power gave orders, but it was only later that those orders turned into threats.” Desnitsky believes that Patriarch Kirill’s latest decree to the Moscow Diocese should be expanded to the entirety of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Deacon Andrey Kurayev, who is known for his critical stance toward Church leaders, disagreed with Desnitsky’s assessment that the patriarch’s decree was strict. On the contrary, Kurayev said, the instructions it gave were “incomprehensible.” “A failure to observe [the rules] can lead to some kind of punishment in the future if, Heaven knows how, somebody proves that the infection took place within the cathedral rather than anywhere else,” the deacon said. He offered a hypothetical alternative policy that, he argued, the patriarch’s order only avoids: “We’re closing the cathedrals, and what’s going to be punished isn’t infections but rather the presence of congregation members in the prayer hall. Assistant bishops will enforce this decree, and if they or the police or even some blogger finds a violation, then those responsible will see a personal, immediate, and harsh response from me, the patriarch.” Kurayev continued, “Postponing the punishment to some unspecified point in the future only makes sense if we’re talking about the Final Judgment, but clergymen know how not to fear that, too.”

Sergey Chapnin is the editor-in-chief of Dary (Heavenly Gifts), an almanac of contemporary Christian culture. He pointed out that the patriarch can only hand down direct decrees to the Moscow priesthood. “Only the Holy Synod’s decisions apply to all of Russia, but the Synod still hasn’t met [since the pandemic began in Russia]. Still, even some of the decisions issued for Moscow seem odd: they’re instructions, documents with no signature, where no specific individual has taken responsibility for their contents. In the most recent document that’s been put out, Patriarch Kirill’s April 27 decree, the situation is also pretty strange: if the patriarch’s orders and decrees aren’t followed, and that leads to someone’s infection and death because of a clergyman, then that clergyman will be tried before an ecclesiastical court. But that seems redundant when you consider that such a case would trigger criminal penalties [from the Russian government], and if a clergyman receives criminal charges, then he is immediately suspended from his duties anyway. If he is then convicted, then he is stripped of his office and removed from the clergy. What should be regulated here are cases that aren’t already covered by Russian criminal and administrative law,” Chapnin explained.

Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ (second from the right), leads Easter services in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Sergey Bobylev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

The religious expert believes that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has so far preferred intimidating priests over supporting them. “The cathedrals have no money to pay their employees’ salaries or their dues to the patriarchate, but only the Metropolitan of Pskov, Tikhon (Shevkunov), has said explicitly that he’s going to cancel dues and that he’s willing to help out the clergy himself,” Chapnin noted. “That probably means there’s only one eparch to be found in the Church who understands the needs of the clergy and their flocks.”

“The patriarchate is afraid of threats from the right”

So far, the only “COVID dissident” within the church who has been publicly penalized is Schema-Hegumen Sergey, who is known in Russian politics as the ultraconservative spiritual advisor to State Duma Deputy Natalia Poklonskaya. The Metropolitanate of Yekaterinburg banned him from preaching after he cursed anyone calling for cathedrals to be closed during the pandemic, said they should be exiled to Birobidzhan, made a series of anti-Semitic statements, and accused the Russian government of creating “a Satanic electronic [prison] camp.”

“Excommunication to all involved in the closure of cathedrals | Schema-Hegumen Sergius”
Tsar’s Cross Movement

Every expert who spoke with Meduza said that Father Sergey’s punishment was on the mild side. “Maybe the patriarchate is afraid of threats from the right, from fundamentalists — those people scare easily because it’s a question of life and death for them, of eternal salvation,” said Andrey Desnitsky. A second possible reason for the light sanctions against the schema-hegumen is that the Church may only have been trying to put some public distance between itself and the ultraconservative priest; it never intended to make Sergey himself repent.

That’s the theory Sergey Chapnin believes. He said a new wave of fundamentalism is currently spreading across the Church, a kind of “theurgical fundamentalism” that demands extreme adherence to Orthodox rituals. Chapnin’s view is that meaningful criticism, both from the pulpit and in theological discussions, is the right way to counter that movement. He thinks administrative penalties aren’t nearly as effective.

Andrey Kurayev, meanwhile, argued that Church leaders would do better to openly dispute the ideas Father Sergey expressed, not punish the priest himself. “That’s what most professional Orthodox Christians believe,” Kurayev said. “The community should have been able to look into that mirror and see that the Orthodox world isn’t just full of trembling old women and cute little kids praying to icons. The church world has its monsters, too. Anyone can become a terrorist [including a religious believer], and the episcopate’s silence about the Stalin mosaic and the monuments to Ivan the Terrible shows that even Church elite are entirely willing to allow terroristic approaches,” the deacon said.

“There’s a fundamental difference between a barracks and a monastery”

Last week’s decrees from the patriarch and the Church-wide working group were preceded by numerous reports of infections and even deaths among high-ranking members of the clergy. On the day the two statements were published, journalists reported that Gennady, Metropolitan of Chelyabinsk, had been hospitalized with a suspected coronavirus infection. A number of other clergymen from the Cathedral of St. Simon, where Father Gennady served, soon met with the same fate. His diocese did not close cathedrals to the public during Easter services.

Stanislav Trofimov, a former cleric at the cathedral, expressed anger at its leaders on his Facebook page. “All the clerics started feeling really bad on Monday, April 20. They got sick. One priest and one deacon stayed healthy. Services weren’t cancelled. A couple of days later, only the priest was left. Services weren’t cancelled. A priest and an altar warden were the first to rumble over to the hospital. Services weren’t cancelled. Then, a simple layman (!not the boss!) ordered CT scans for the sick clerics who had planned to go back to work in the near future. Two clergymen didn’t show up for the procedure: one has no symptoms and has kept serving, and the other decided to do a holy deed and stay home — seems like he’s waiting on an ambulance because he’s doing really poorly. Not everybody came back from the CT scans, but I’d like to point out that the people who [went back to work] aren’t [necessarily] healthy — their lungs just aren’t damaged,” Trofimov wrote.

The weekend after Orthodox Easter, Bishop Veniamin of Zheleznogorsk, whose diocese is part of the Kursk Metropolitanate, passed away. Churchgoers in his diocese were also allowed into cathedrals for the holiday. Soon after the bishop’s death, a video began spreading on social media under the title “The Masons Invented Coronavirus.” It featured the late clergyman saying, “Everything you hear in the press, on TV, is actually from the masons, who are paying people for that purpose — a particular group is taking shape to go against the Church. The Orthodox Church is the only one that’s truly militant, the only one that has something holy in it, that no one can break or push down to its knees.” It soon became clear that the video was actually recorded in 2012, and the bishop was referring to the punk protest group Pussy Riot.

Other high-ranking clergymen who have died after contracting COVID-19 include Hegumen Alexander Ageykin, who led Moscow’s Cathedral of the Epiphany; Yevgeny Trofimov, the protodeacon of the same cathedral; and Hegumen Vladimir Veriga, who works in the Alexandria Icon-Painting Workshop. Bishop Foma, the Cathedral of the Epiphany’s new hegumen, has also been infected with the coronavirus.

On April 27, Church novice Dmitry Pelipenko committed self-immolation; he was in training at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has played a major role in the history of Russian Orthodoxy. Pelipenko had previously been hospitalized with a suspected coronavirus infection. According to Andrey Kurayev, “almost all” of the Lavra’s inhabitants have contracted the virus; its leader, Bishop Paramon, has already recovered from COVID-19. Metropolitan Pitirim (Tvorogov), the rector of the Moscow Theological Academy, confirmed that information, but no official data about the COVID-19 outbreak among the Lavra’s monks has been published.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the holy site itself announced on March 20 that they would not be limiting public access to cathedrals or sanitizing communion vessels. The Lavra Council’s announcement reads as follows: “The Holy Council would like to address the flock of the Reverend Sergius’s cloister as well as all pilgrims who visit it: do not fear, do not lose your way, but do not lose your vigilance, either! Do not fear the threat of the new coronaviral infection’s spread, for we must only fear ‘Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matthew 10:28). May the information reaching us about the sickness serve as one more reason to redouble our prayers and grow closer to God. And furthermore, do not fear hyperbolic rumors and false information. The brotherly council has acknowledged that the measures taken, as a response to requests made by government authorities, should cast no doubt on our faith and our conviction that it is impossible to receive any illness through communion or through participation in any other Church sacraments.” The monastery gates were open to worshippers for Easter as well. According to Metropolitan Pitirim, the Lavra’s leadership allowed the public in for the holiday under pressure from an “irate crowd” demanding access to the site.

Another nationally renowned cloister, the St. Seraphim-Diveyevo monastery of nuns, has been officially locked down and quarantined. According to the government of the Nizhny Novgorod region, where the monastery is located, 76 individuals inside have contracted the novel coronavirus. Shortly before Holy Week and Easter, the area was closed down to visitors, but until then, services had continued as usual. “Traditionally, a lot of people come here from around the capital, which caused an outbreak of the illness in the St. Seraphim-Diveyevo Women’s Monastery,” explained regional governor Gleb Nikitin.

In Moscow, the Novospassky Monastery has been quarantined amid an outbreak that reached the cloister’s leader, Metropolitan Dionisius. The monastery was closed to visitors shortly before Easter. Meanwhile, the Moscow Theological Academy has openly disclosed that some of its students have contracted the new coronavirus: tests showed that 52 of the 136 students and staff living in the academy had been infected. That number includes the school’s rector, Metropolitan Pitirim, who supports strict limits on church functions during the epidemic and has criticized clergymembers who take the opposite stance.

Experts agree that on its own, the fact that Orthodox monks and nuns are getting sick doesn’t reflect negatively on them. “The structure of monastic life inherently means that people gather in enclosed spaces,” Andrey Desnitsky explained. “Telling the monks they’re not allowed to go to church together would be very strange. So monasteries are at increased risk regardless of whether they have COVID dissidents in their communities or not.” The real problem, Desnitsky said, is that pilgrims have continued to visit Russian monasteries, introducing the virus as they go.

Worshippers attend an Easter service at the Troitsky Cathedral in Moscow’s Danilov Monastery, which serves as a headquarters for the Russian Orthodox Church.
Mikhail Metsel / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Andrey Kurayev described the situation in Russia’s monasteries as follows: “These are closed-off territories where people live close together, like military bases. If the infection gets in, then it mows down everybody — just think back to what happened with the American aircraft carrier or our Nakhmovsky Naval School. You can’t blame the monks for that. […] But there’s a fundamental difference between a barracks and a monastery: nobody visits a barracks to kiss the regimental seal or the general’s boots. Meanwhile, outsiders do visit monasteries to bow down to their relics and shrines, and a lot of people kiss the monks’ hands and even their beards if you get lucky. The monasteries didn’t think about how worshippers might be infected until it was too late. A fitting analogy here is a streetlight that attracts moths on a summer night: whoever lit it is the one to blame for their deaths,” the deacon argued.

The flock wants numbers

Amid these and other difficulties, a group of Orthodox believers wrote an open letter to Patriarch Kirill asking for “information about which cathedrals and which monasteries have ill or infected clerics and residents.” “There are priests who silently ignore your calls for congregations to stay home. There are also those who openly preach that it is impossible to become infected in a cathedral, that complying with rituals to which you have given your blessing (disinfecting communion spoons, refraining from kissing the bowl) would be nearly tantamount to a defection from the Orthodox faith. Many bishops have continued to conduct services, and some have explicitly called on their flocks to attend. There are bishops who literally force their priests to serve in empty cathedrals even though services could be temporarily suspended in many of those cathedrals,” the letter reads.

Sergey Chapnin is among the letter’s organizers and original signatories. He said that 265 other people have already signed on as well, all of them laypeople from across Russia who work in a range of professions. “We’re still waiting for a response from the patriarch. But we got a response almost immediately on Telegram from [Church PR and press committee chair] Vladimir Legoida, and then the working group’s announcement came out. We also consider the patriarch’s decree that we’ve discussed above to be a partial response. We are satisfied to see that our letter prompted the patriarchate to formulate new policies, but we’re disappointed that we still haven’t received a response as far as statistics are concerned. Still, we’ve already decided that we’re going to collect [those statistics] ourselves,” Chapnin said.

He added that the numbers he’s seen on infections in Moscow have been shocking, “and that’s the diocese that’s directly subordinate to the patriarch. […] Many people are struggling to understand the patriarch’s silence, where he’s gone. We haven’t seen him or heard from him, and that gives way to rumors that there is some chance of the patriarch himself being infected. In this situation, it’s important to have information delivered regularly and openly. In my view, the pandemic’s progression has shown that the patriarchate made a strategic error: the cathedrals should have been closed off right away,” Chapnin concluded. “Leaving them open without strict, mandatory hygiene rules shouldn’t have been permitted. That’s what caused a spike not only in new cases, but in deaths among the Moscow clergy.”

Text by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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