Lining up for coronavirus kisses The Russian Orthodox Church isn’t shutting its doors or using clean spoons, despite a global pandemic
On March 10, part of a relic of John the Baptist was brought to the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Despite the spread of coronavirus, hundreds of Russian Orthodox churchgoers have visited the shrine. Journalists on the ground have confirmed that a volunteer uses a rag to wipe down the relic after churchgoers kiss it, but the flow of people is so rapid that the shrine isn’t cleaned after every kiss. This is the only precaution the cathedral is currently taking to stop the spread of disease. The relic will remain in St. Petersburg until March 17, when it returns to Israel.
Why is this happening?
A line for unsterilized kisses does not violate the Russian Orthodox Church’s official position on safety measures during the global coronavirus pandemic. A spokesman for the church recently told reporters that the organization does not plan to close churches or cancel religious services, though clerics say they will listen to city officials and medical professionals. In Lipetsk, for example, the church canceled a motorcade procession against COVID-19 after the local authorities banned all mass public assemblies to help counter the spread of the disease.
Have churches instituted any new safety measures?
Yes. The Russian Orthodox Church has called for the more frequent disinfection of icon cases and the introduction of single-use cups for zapivka (wine diluted with water consumed after communion), while also urging churchgoers experiencing “SARS symptoms” to stay at home. Communion itself will still take place using a single spoon. It’s possible that people will be examined for coronavirus symptoms before they’re allowed inside some churches. The clergy has already requested temperature checks of priests and members of the Moscow diocese.
Does the Russian Orthodox Church really not understand the danger here?
There’s a lot of debate and disagreement. Archpriest James Baglien of the Western American Diocese in Corvallis, Oregon, has downplayed the threat by pointing out that receiving communion can spread respiratory and intestinal infections even when there isn’t a global pandemic. He also claims (erroneously) that the spoon used in communion is sterile because it’s constantly dipped in wine.
The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece has stated officially that coronavirus cannot be transmitted through communion. Citing theological arguments, Russian Orthodox Church Protodeacon Andrey Kuraev says he agrees with this assessment.
Apparently implying some form of divine immunity, some clergy who advocate continued churchgoing and communion participation during the global coronavirus pandemic say there are priests who have spent years in hospitals near people with infectious diseases without ever becoming sick. The Holy Synod of the Church of Cyprus, for example, has made this argument. Pravmir also spoke to several Russian priests who share this view (though the website doesn’t recommend following their example).
Other priests in Russia have said merely that going to church is still okay, unless state officials impose formal restrictions. Metropolitan Ilarion has said as much, while also suggesting that the Church will consider introducing single-use spoons for communion.
Meanwhile, Talgat Tadzhuddin, Russia’s chief mufti and the head of Russia’s Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate, has already called for the temporary closure of all mosques across the country.
What are religious organizations doing outside Russia?
To slow the spread of COVID-19, churches and shrines are closing to the public all over the world, including the Catholic Church in Rome, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and mosques across Tajikistan.
Officials in Iran, where the spread of coronavirus has been especially bad, have imposed major restrictions on religious congregations, including pilgrimages. The Iranian authorities recently arrested two men who licked a shrine in an effort to prove that they do not fear coronavirus.