At first glance, the republic of Georgia has been a success story in the fight against the novel coronavirus: the outbreak in the small Caucasus nation has remained limited, with just 370 official cases as of Friday morning.
But Georgia now faces a serious test. Easter will be celebrated this Sunday on the Eastern Christian calendar, and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church is planning major celebrations that public health officials say could prove deadly.
Georgian authorities moved early to respond to the coronavirus. The government closed schools on February 29, when the country had just three confirmed cases. Health experts have credited the swift response with containing the virus early through social distancing and other measures. On Friday, a five-day nationwide ban on private car travel went into effect.
The Georgian Orthodox church, however, has largely refused to heed the pleas of public health officials, who have urged people to stay home. Churches across Georgia have remained open and continued to hold ceremonies, a move that experts say could prove disastrous.
This past Sunday, thousands gathered in churches across the country to mark Palm Sunday on the Orthodox calendar. The services were an explicit breach of the lockdown decreed by authorities on March 30, which included a ban on gatherings of more than three people.
The tradition-bound church has so far refused to adapt communion rites to counter epidemiological concerns. Worshippers line up at the end of each service to receive the sacrament of communion from the same communal spoon, Reuters reported Thursday.
“The spoon is often not even washed” between uses, Salome Kandelaki, a project coordinator at the Georgian Institute of Politics who researches religion in Georgia, told CNN.
A spokesperson for the Georgian Orthodox Church did not return a request for comment. But church officials have been insistent that its traditional practices do no harm.
“It is not possible for this virus to be spread by the church,” Metropolitan Gerasim, a senior priest who heads a large district in western Georgia, was quoted as saying by Georgian media this week. “We are healing people, not hurting them.”
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister and the church struck a last-minute deal to allow Easter services to be held, but with some precautions to safeguard parishioners from Covid-19. Those measures include social distancing, a police presence, and the scaling back of traditional cemetery visit festivities.
But the government, which said the country is entering a peak phase for transmission of the virus, has continued to call on worshipers to stay home regardless.
“In large churches, during the service, a distance of two meters must be maintained, and in small churches only clergy will serve. Each church will have mobilized patrol police crews to monitor curfew and social distance,” said Irakli Chikovani, the spokesman for Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, reported Tbilisi Week. “Citizens must comply with curfew conditions, otherwise measures will be taken.”
Analysts say the government led by the Georgian Dream party, which has aided the church’s push for a conservative, family values-oriented society, has been reluctant to enforce anti-coronavirus measures when it comes to the church.
“I am still surprised that [the church] does not think ahead,” said Tamuna Khoshtaria, senior researcher at the Caucasus Research Resource Center Georgia, a leading independent, non-profit research and survey group. “But I am more surprised that the government lets them do it, because they have put so much effort into containing the virus. Now it all seems in vain.
Observers say that both church and state are imperiling public health. The Georgian health ministry and prime minister’s office have not yet responded to a CNN request for comment.
Paata Imnadze, deputy head of the National Center for Disease Control, implored citizens to observe social distancing measures, warning that “if we don’t stay at home … the death rate will be staggering.”
The Georgian church’s insistence is all the more remarkable for the measures other Eastern Orthodox churches have taken. The Russian Orthodox Church has officially urged worshipers to stay at home, although some churches continue to hold services. The Church of Greece decided to suspend mass as of March 16.
The virus has already inflicted casualties among the Georgian faithful.
National surveys consistently rank the church as one of Georgia’s two most trusted institutions. But the ongoing controversy seems destined to buffet the church’s standing in Georgian society, still strong but no longer unassailable.
The past few years in general have not been kind to the church’s image. A prominent priest was convicted for the attempted murder of the patriarchate’s secretary in 2017. Last year, an archbishop was dismissed in an alleged pedophilia scandal.
A forthcoming study by CRRC-Georgia seen by CNN shows a stark reversal. The number of respondents who said they “fully trusted” the Georgian Orthodox Church dropped to 38% last year, down from 75% in 2008.
The Georgian patriarchate’s resistance to change in the current crisis is further pushing some public opinion towards viewpoints critical of the church, with many Georgians voicing criticism on social media.
It remains to be seen how parishioners will react to the limitations on the Easter Service. A church spokesman said curfews would be respected by parishioners who will remain at the church from 9 p.m. Saturday to 6 a.m. Sunday to avoid violating the Prime Minister’s order, according to press reports.
But without the church’s explicit support, any further attempts by the government to halt religious ceremonies unilaterally are unlikely to have much effect. “The patriarchate has called it inexcusable and ‘a crime against God’ if worshippers are prevented from going to church,” Kandelaki said.
This Easter, then, will present a major risk for the country. If huge crowds turn out for Easter celebrations, in contravention of calls from leading public health officials, Georgia’s record of success in fighting coronavirus could be in doubt.