March 11, 2020 / 3:53 PM / 22 days ago

Bulgarian Orthodox Church to continue all services for 'health' reasons despite coronavirus

SOFIA (Reuters) - The leader of Bulgaria’s main Orthodox Church said on Wednesday it would continue to hold all traditional services ahead of Easter despite the coronavirus outbreak as they were key to the physical and mental health of worshippers.

Bulgarian authorities earlier announced measures to stem the spread of coronavirus, including limiting cultural and other large-scale indoor events to no more than 250 people who must keep at least one meter (yard) apart from one other.

Orthodox Patriarch Neofit, however, said in a letter to clerics and worshippers in the Sofia capital region that churches would remain open for all services and rituals without fear of coronavirus infection.

This included Holy Communion, the partaking of wine soaked in bread that worshippers sip from the same chalice for atonement from sins.

“Тhe sacred mysteries cannot be a vector of contagion or any disease, they are a cure for physical and mental healing and health,” said Neofit, head of the 1,100-year-old church that survived centuries of Turkish domination and decades of atheist Communist rule.

Neofit urged those diagnosed with coronavirus to avoid church services and instead say prayers in their homes. He also ordered officials to clean and disinfect chairs, benches and carpets in their churches.

The number of confirmed coronavirus infections in the Black Sea state stands at seven, much lower than in many other European countries. A 66-year-old woman became the first in Bulgaria to die from the infection, officials said on Wednesday.

Neofit’s message was relayed to all other dioceses in the Balkan country. Most of them have already said there will be no abolition of rituals despite coronavirus risks.

Not all Bulgarians were convinced by Neofit’s approach with some taking to social media to express dissatisfaction.

“It is an absolutely unacceptable statement bordering on mediaeval dementia and (reflecting) sadness about feared financial losses,” Lubomir Alamanov wrote in Facebook.

Around 75 percent of Bulgarians declared themselves as Orthodox Christians in the most recent national census in 2011, though few see churchgoing as central to their lives.

The response to coronavirus by religious authorities in neighboring and other European countries has varied.

Greece’s Orthodox Church said Holy Communion would continue, despite fierce debate on whether it was prudent for the Church to let worshippers continue to sip from the same spoon.

In devoutly Catholic Poland, the bishops conference chief said on Tuesday the number of Catholic Masses on Sundays should be increased so not too many churchgoers gather at once, in line with the government’s coronavirus restrictions.

In the Czech Republic, masses will continue to be held as long as there are no more than 100 people present, with Romania adopting a similar policy. But Slovakia has canceled Catholic and Lutheran services for 14 days.

Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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