Orthodox churches empty for Easter amid pandemic


KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Orthodox priests in much of Europe held Easter services in churches empty of parishoners because of restrictions imposed to block the spread of coronavirus.

In Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kyiv, priests at the services that began late Saturday night wore the elaborate robes that characterize Orthodoxy’s most important holy day and choirs sang, but worshipers could only see them on TV or online broadcasts.

Police were deployed outside hundreds of churches in Ukraine to ensure that anyone who came to stand outside a service observed regulations calling for social distancing and banning large gatherings.

A small exception was made at the Pechersk monastery in Kyiv, where police allowed worshipers to enter the church one at a time, with the next person going inside when another left. About 100 people stood outside the monastery waiting to be let in.

The monastery, a major tourist attraction because of its extensive system of caves and catacombs, was closed under quarantine; more than 90 of its monks have been identified as infected with coronavirus and at least two have died.

The monastery belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is loyal to to the Russian Orthodox Church and is one of two rival Orthodox denominations denominations in Ukraine. The church’s leader drew criticism after suggesting that worshipers could gather outside while services were conducted rather than staying at home.

That statement increased tensions with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which last year was granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Orthodoxy’s prime authority, displacing the Russia-affiliated church.

All churches in greater Moscow, St. Petersburg and many Russian regions have been closed since Monday, although some churches in remote regions were expected to have services with parishoners attending.

Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill led the church’s main service at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. In an Easter epistle, he called on his flock not to be discouraged by being unable to attend services.

“We Orthodox Christians should not lose heart or despair in these difficult circumstances, let alone panic. We are called upon to preserve the inner world,” he said.

In Cyprus, many Orthodox faithful stood on their balconies or front porches with lighted candles as clergymen officiating midnight Easter Service in empty churches chanted “Christ is Risen.” Cypriots observed Easter services from their televisions at home following a government-imposed ban on worshippers attending church services that’s part of a strict stay-at-home order.


Jim Heintz in Moscow and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this story.

A priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Nazariy, wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus, blesses family members on the Easter eve near their house in the village of Nove close to capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April, 18, 2020. All the Ukrainian churches have been closed for people because of COVID-19 outbreak, and believers wait for the priest right near their houses. For Orthodox Christians, this is normally a time of reflection, communal mourning and joyful release, of centuries-old ceremonies steeped in symbolism and tradition. But this year, Easter – by far the most significant religious holiday for the world’s roughly 300 million Orthodox – has essentially been cancelled. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)