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Mass Infections and Quarantine Rejection: What is Happening in the Russian Orthodox Church?

The Russian Orthodox Church is facing a mass outbreak of coronavirus after several parishes have refused to introduce quarantine and lockdown measures. Church leaders advised believers to pray at home and avoid mass gatherings in churches. Despite this, many priests and abbots of monasteries chose to allow religious gatherings including at Easter, exacerbating the spread of the virus. This decision results from intensely held religious belief in the community, and an unwillingness on the part of the church to coordinate preventative measures with the government.

On March 29, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church addressed the Orthodox Christians of Russia. In his speech he invited Christians to pray at home and avoid attending church in person. Nevertheless, the church leadership did not introduce a coordinated plan of action for all churches and parishes. Accordingly each church or monastery had a right to decide whether there was a need for quarantine on a case by case basis. This led to a situation in which many churches and monasteries have remained open to the public, as their local leadership is personally opposed to the idea of a lockdown and quarantine.

The refusal of the quarantine and lockdown measures within the Russian Orthodox Church can be traced to two main arguments. First of all, many priests believe that the state is not allowed to limit the church's activities, as the church is constitutionally separate from the state. The second argument is of a clearly religious nature. Several priests including Moscow Archpriest Alexander Ageykin publicly voiced the opinion that a closure of churches would show distrust of God. In Ageykin’s opinion, the 65 percent of Russia's population who consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians were bound by their faith to attend church and pray together. One month after his public statement Archpriest Alexander Ageykin died with a coronavirus diagnosis.

The situation in the Orthodox Church escalated during the Easter celebration on April 19. In theory, believers had been advised to pray at home and watch the service online. However, according to Easter internet streams from several churches, the pews were packed. It is worth noting that the Orthodox service itself depends on numerous acts of contact like kissing icons and communion taken from a single dish.

After Easter, media reported that another senior church official, Bishop Benjamin of Zheleznogorsk and Lgovsky, died with a Coronavirus diagnosis. Benjamin was the first high-ranking church official whose death was linked to COVID-19.  The bishop’s death attracted media and public attention, resulting in demands for an explanation from the church.

On April 25, an open letter to Patriarch Kirill was published online. The letter was signed by Orthodox Christians who were growing increasingly worried. The letter says that the leadership of many churches and monasteries prohibits the disclosure of information about the actual numbers of sick priests, monks and nuns. Indeed, in April the Orthodox Church only shared the numbers of corona cases among the clergy in Moscow. There is no official data about regional churches and monasteries. According to the open letter, there are infected people in almost all monasteries, in some cases the majority of inhabitants are sick.  Unbelievably, those monasteries remain open to the public. The letter claims that some priests continue to urge believers to come to church, and consider the policy of closing churches to be apostate, and are more than happy to use this to intimidate parishioners. The Orthodox church reacted with a refutation of these claims and stated that there was no concealment of facts, moreover, the situation was under control.

Even worse is the situation in monasteries and priories. In the Holy Trinity Sergius Lavra, the largest monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church, 37 people are infected with coronavirus. According to the unofficial information, almost all inhabitants of the Holy Trinity Sergius Lavra were sick with COVID-19. In addition, in the Moscow Theological Academy 52 out of 136 students and staff living in the academy are diagnosed with Coronavirus.

In Nizhny Novgorod, the Holy Trinity Seraphim-Diveevsky Monastery reported that 76 nuns were infected with COVID-19. Just two weeks before the report, the monastery had an online Easter stream which showed an especially well attended service. Later, when reports about the sick nuns began to circulate, the stream was deleted. The monastery had also hosted a massive procession on April 20th. According to Orthodox tradition, the monastery cut an Easter bread and distributed it among believers. Days later the entire monastery was under quarantine.

It is unknown how many people were infected after the Holy Trinity Seraphim-Diveevsky monastery broke bread and hosted public processions. It is unknown how many more cases are yet to be made public, and how many churches and monasteries continue to operate without coronavirus precautions.  What is known, however is that the Russian Orthodox Church faces a situation of mass infections and several deaths, the totals of which continue to rise.

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