A Greek Orthodox priest has sparked outrage after he lifted a child up to kiss the coffin of a bishop who died of COVID-19 after men in full-body Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) had carried the coffin into the church.
Footage of the funeral in the town of Lagadas outside Thessaloniki was widely shared on social media and local news sites, prompting strong reactions at a time when coronavirus infections are rising and Greece has implemented a strict national lockdown.
In the video, the priest can be seen standing close to a boy at the side of the bishop’s coffin before lifting the child up to place a kiss on the casket.
Both the boy and the priest were wearing face masks, however, the priest later removed his to kiss the coffin himself. The boy kept his mask on throughout.
Keep Talking Greece reported that the coffin was in fact open and so the boy and priest had kissed the bishop’s corpse, but this can’t be clearly seen in the video, which shows objects that appear to be resting on the coffin’s lid.
The service on Monday was held for senior clergyman Ioannis of Lagadas, 62, who died on Sunday morning from coronavirus.
During the pandemic, the bishop had been an outspoken advocate of maintaining communion ceremonies – at which worshippers are given bread as well as wine from a shared spoon.
He argued that there was no risk of transmitting the virus in this way.
The bishop’s coffin was carried to the funeral with great care by six men in full-body PPE.
According to Keep Talking Greece, several other bishops in Thessaloniki have been infected after participating in events to mark the feast day of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki on October 26.
Greeks on social media have been demanding that restrictions and fines for violating them should also apply to priests and the government has promised to take action.
During Greece’s first national lockdown in March, a priest on the island of Cypher was arrested for holding mass despite a ban on religious gatherings.
Churches across Greece are currently closed as part of a three-week nationwide lockdown that started on November 7, but are due to reopen before the Christmas period.
The Church’s governing Holy Synod said on Monday that it was complying with public safety restrictions, and hit back at critics who have accused the church of acting irresponsibly.
“Certain aspiring leaders of public opinion are insisting in a neurotic manner on concentrating exclusively on Holy Communion,” a statement from the Synod said.
They cite unscientific correlations with the spread of the coronavirus, in defiance of epidemiological evidence.
Greek health experts have mostly avoided commenting on church practices, but have noted that World Health Organization guidelines list saliva as a leading means of contamination.
Christos Giannoulis, a Thessaloniki lawmaker for the left-wing Syriza party, said the conservative government should have sought stronger support from the Church in its public health campaign.
“I do believe places of worship have contributed to the rapid spread of the pandemic though they are certainly not the only one: Add that to overcrowding on public transport, crowding outside schools, and the tragic lack of testing and we are where we are now,” he told The Associated Press.
“If the Church had been the lead advocate for wearing masks, for example, things might have been different now,” he added.
The restrictions on religious gatherings are part of a national lockdown which is due to end on November 30.
Currently, people must send a text to get permission to leave their home and can only do so for essential reasons.
Travel between regions is banned and a curfew is in place from 9:pm to 5:am local time.
The majority of shops and schools are also closed and travellers to Greece must be receive a negative test before arriving.