Russia’s Orthodox Church Dismissed COVID. Now Scores of Clergy Are Infected. May 6, 2020

Russia’s Orthodox Church Dismissed COVID. Now Scores of Clergy Are Infected.

Patriarch Kirill (below), the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, was never a beacon of rationality. He’s said marriage equality rules are “similar to the laws in Nazi Germany.” He’s flung holy water at computers to fight a digital virus. He blamed the rise of ISIS on radical secularists.

It fell to this man to decide whether the churches under his auspices should follow civil guidelines and suspend services during the corona-crisis. What could go wrong?

Writes the New York Times:

The Russian church, like the Russian state with which it has often moved in lock step, is rigidly hierarchical, meaning that even priests who understand the need to suspend services cannot do so without the blessing of a bishop, and bishops in turn cannot act without clear instructions from Patriarch Kirill, Russian Orthodoxy’s senior cleric.

The patriarch … initially dithered over enforcing instructions from health officials that people should avoid public gatherings like church services.

Not that he didn’t take bold and decisive action: Kirill

drove along a highway around Moscow in a black Mercedes van with a holy icon, blessing the Russian capital with prayer en route.

That ought to have done it, right? But amazingly, the virus didn’t obey Kirill’s command that it leave Russia forthwith. It instead multiplied with startling efficiency, finding a toehold among Russia’s religious officials and fanning out from there.

Since Easter, churches and monasteries under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church have reported a surge of infections in both Russia and in neighboring Belarus and Ukraine. More than 200 people have been reported infected in and around a convent in the Nizhny Novgorod region east of Moscow, including 70 nuns.

St. Elizabeth, a convent run by the Russian church in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where state officials have joined priests in playing down the risks of the virus, finally went into lockdown last week after scores of priests and nuns reportedly fell ill after testing positive.

If Kirill was a bit wishy-washy, others in the Church have been insisting implacably from the start that public religious services should continue. They believe that coronavirus is either a test from God or some dark conspiracy against the Christian faith.

[St. Elizabeth’s] senior priest, the Rev. Andrei Lemeshonok, has been in the forefront of denialism, posting a video online titled: “Who can forbid us to believe?” In it, he scolded worshipers for worrying about physical illness when “the scariest thing,” he said, is when people want to change their gender, don’t have children or otherwise ignore traditional values.

Here’s that video, which the convent posted on March 23.

Father Lemeshonok says that with regard to the virus, nothing can happen to Christians who fear only God, explaining that “the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church.” He then opines that the pandemic is primarily “some kind of an economic war; it seems so planned.” Not to worry though, he assures his audience at the end: Christ conquered death, and the savior will also vanquish the virus, and all will be well.

Six weeks on, I bet that’s a surprise to everyone in the Orthodox Church who took few if any precautions, and who is now infected.

Suddenly, given the numbers of sick and dead people, most of the talk about Christ’s pending victory isn’t so adamant anymore.

After a surge of infections in Moscow, the patriarch issued an order last week that monastery abbots and parish rectors in the Russian capital have “personal responsibility” for complying with state instructions aimed at combating the virus. Clerics and lay church workers who ignore the health authorities, he warned, face trial before a church court if their noncompliance results in death from Covid-19.

Apparently fearful of upsetting more traditional-minded priests, who dominate the church, the patriarch has so far taken formal disciplinary action against only one cleric, the relatively liberal Andrei Kuraev, who mocked the head of a Moscow cathedral who died from the virus as a “dumb careerist.”

Cue the old die heretic!” joke.

[T]he church is troubled by feuding between rival clans, leaving many ordinary believers uncertain about whom to trust.

Inevitably, conservative firebrand preachers are jockeying for position.

[M]any priests have complained bitterly that the state has no right to interfere in who attends services. Discouraging public worship, warned Metropolitan Longin, a senior churchman in Saratov, a region in southwestern Russia, only revived painful memories of Soviet-era repression. He threatened damnation for those who enforced or obeyed restrictions, warning that anyone who carried out instructions from state health authorities that violated the dictates of faith “will be held accountable.”

Not to be outdone,

[A] bishop in the northern Russian region of Komi… [declared] that the ringing of church bells was the best way to combat the pandemic, [and] he claimed that the word coronavirus — derived from the Latin word for “crown” — is “not coincidental but is linked to the coronation and enthronement of the Antichrist.”

Sergei Romanov, a cleric in the industrial city of Yekaterinburg, also weighed in, thundering against restrictions on public gatherings, including church services, as part of a satanic plot aided by Jews.

Reading up on all this makes me feel like I’m in a satirical novel co-written by John Kennedy Toole, Tom Wolfe, and Mark Twain.

But none of this is a laughing matter. The number of confirmed infections in Russia has been going up lately by more than 10,000 a day.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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