Cover image: South Korea's Patient 31. A lesson to learn.

This is a translated and slightly adapted version of an article originally published in Romanian on March 16. Since then, the Orthodox Church of Moldova still hasn’t renounced public masses, resolving to hold them outdoors.

In Moldova, the Covid-19 pandemic has come at a bad time. It’s Lent, a period when every Orthodox Christian has a sacred duty to confess and receive Holy Communion at least once before Easter comes. It’s really a big thing, especially in rural Moldova. On a spiritual level, communion, or the Holy Eucharist, is the greatest sacrament of the Orthodox Church through which believers partake of the saints’ grace. On a practical level, this is a rite whereby the priest dispenses pieces of bread dipped into wine to his flock, from a common chalice and a common spoon. Even without communion, going to church is not the safest thing to do right now, even if the clergy obstinately refuses to admit it.

Friday the 13th

After some hesitation and contradictory messages, on Friday the National Extraordinary Commission for Public Health finally decided to ban religious ceremonies for all the denominations across Moldova until the end of March.[1] Only funerals are an exception, but they, too, must respect the rule of not bringing together more than 50 people.

So how have Moldova’s religious groups responded? The Catholic Church has suspended all ceremonies,[2] the Baptist Church has suspended all ceremonies, the Islamic League has suspended all ceremonies,[3] and so have a number of smaller denominations.[4] But not the two Orthodox Churches – the Metropolis of Chisinau, which is the largest one and is subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Metropolis of Bessarabia, which is subordinated to the Romanian Patriarchate.

On Sunday and Saturday, television cameras showed people congregating for masses.[5] In at least two Chisinau churches, people seemed to have kept a certain distance among each other and some of them even wore masks. We can only guess how people behaved in other churches around the country, without the scrutiny of cameras.

While the leadership of the Orthodox Church assure us that all the sanitary precautions are taken and that, in general, nothing bad can possibly happen to you in the temple of God as long as your faith is rock-solid, the experiences of other countries stricken by this novel virus earlier show otherwise.

Korea: Patient 31

South Korea’s 31st confirmed case is perhaps the most telling example of how badly the disregard for social distancing during this outbreak can end.[6] The case is directly related to a church. It’s not clear where Patient 31 picked up the virus, but in the days before the diagnosis, she travelled to crowded places in the city of Daegu and the capital Seul. On February 6 she was in a minor traffic accident and was hospitalized. During this time, she attended two church services a week apart from each other.

Total infected in South Korea by groups as of 2 March 2020. Source: Reuters

In between those services, on February 15, doctors at the hospital suggested she be tested for coronavirus, as she had a high fever. The woman defied the advice of her doctors and even went out to have lunch with a friend in a hotel buffet. Her symptoms worsened and only on February 17 the woman agreed to be tested. This is how the country’s 31st case was confirmed. At a certain moment, 70 out of 104 confirmed cases in South Korea could be traced to Patient 31. In only a matter of days, because of the woman’s neglect, the number of infected Koreans soared to hundreds and eventually to thousands.

Iran: the kiss of death

Besides the disregard for social distancing, another problem with religious ceremonies is related to the veneration of icons, relics and other tangible items. The holy city of Qom has been among the first coronavirus hotbeds in Iran. The city is known for the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, a location that attracts millions of believers during the great holidays. Iran’s example is proof that faith cannot always protect us from trouble. Like the Moldovan clergy, the Iranian religious leaders opposed a complete closedown of temples. Instead, they relied on disinfectants and on the “divine power” of shrines to cure or at least fend off diseases. Meanwhile, visitors are in the habit of kissing and touching the shrines.[7] Today Iran is the third worst hit country in the world and is buildining cemeteries for its neglected citizens.[8] Scared by Iran’s case, Saudi Arabia has banned religious services and pilgrimages, inlcuding to two of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.[9]

Both South Korea and Iran should serve as a lesson of how the novel coronavirus requires rigorous measures. A complete cancellation of all mass activities is needed, as partial quarantines or disinfection measures alone don’t work.

Don’t bend the spoon. Realize the truth

The arguments put forward by religious influencers are usually categorical, and often the invocation of divinity is enough for them. For example, Fr. Pavel Borșevschi, a vocal priest of the Moldovan Orthodox Church, says that single-use spoons cannot be accepted for communion because “you cannot put a random person’s spoon in the Chalice.”[10] Metropolitan Bishop of Bessarabia Petru goes further by saying that “not any single secular law can interrupt the continuity of the Holy Liturgy”[11] Are there any circumstances still that can warrant secular laws to prevail?

Render Unto Caesar

The Moldovan Constitution guarantees the freedom of conscience, acknowledging religious denominations as autonomous and separated from the state. In other words, anyone has as much a right to attend church as to vote, for example. Still, the right to freely manifest one’s religious beliefs can be restricted under the law if it’s in the interest of public health or morals.[12] Moreover, the government could take legal action against the Church for its constant defiance of instructions and suspend its activity. It’s difficult to understand why the government continues to let the Church have its way, to potentially lethal effect.

Difficult but not impossible. The Law on Denominations recognizes “the special importance of Orthodox Christianity and of the Orthodox Church in the life, history and culture of the Moldovan people.” Politicians also understand its influence, which the Church has used many a time to play an active role in politics [13] and attempt to shape public policies[14] (for example, by opposing legislation on equality and sex education).[15]

It seems that this recognition in the Law isn’t reciprocated by the Church, as the politicians’ flirtation with the Church only encourages this sacred cow behavior. While a person can choose whatever degree of complexity for his or her individual relationship with the Church, a government should know better than to have a special relationship with one religious group.

For whom the bell tolls

This hesitant and toothless approach by the authorities in relation to the Church could have serious consequences not only for the churchgoers – a big share of whom are elderly, and hence more vulnerable to this novel virus – but for the entire population, as the experiences of other countries have shown.

In one of our recent articles, we discussed about how important it is that the government has a transparent dialogue with the people during times of crisis and assure them that everything is under control. The current situation shows that communication is not enough. We also need convincing actions. The tolerance of religious services amid a pandemic, as well as the decision to hold an election in Hîncești constituency, does not add credibility to the government, as a Red Code alert is something that no one should neglect, not even those speaking in the name of God.

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  1. Comisia naţională extraordinară de sănătate publică, Hotărâre nr. 7 din 13 martie 2020 privind evoluția situației epidemiologice a infecției COVID-19, gov.md ↩︎

  2. Parohia Catolică din Chișinău îndeamnă oamenii să se roage de acasă sau să urmărească online slujbele, tv8.md ↩︎

  3. Apelul conducerii Uniunii Bisericilor în legătură cu amenințarea răspândirii COVID-19, baptist.org.md ↩︎

  4. Postare facebook a Ligii Islamice din Republica Moldova, facebook.com ↩︎

  5. Slujba la Biserica Sf. Dumitru, protv.md ↩︎

  6. How coronavirus cases exploded in South Korean churches and hospitals, reuters.com ↩︎

  7. Coronavirus: Iran holy-shrine-lickers face prison, bbc.com ↩︎

  8. Satellite images show Iran has built mass graves amid coronavirus outbreak, theguardian.com ↩︎

  9. Saudi Arabia suspends Umrah pilgrimage due to coronavirus fears, france24.com ↩︎

  10. Preotul Pavel Borșevschi: „Credincioșii nu pot veni la împărtășanie cu lingurița de acasă. Nu punem în potir lingura oricui, nu avem încredere”, agora.md ↩︎

  11. Scrisoare deschisă adresată Primului Ministru al R. Moldova, d-lui Ion Chicu, mitropoliabasarabiei.md ↩︎

  12. Lege privind libertatea de conştiinţă, de gîndire şi de religie, legis.md ↩︎

  13. Religia ca factor de mobilizare politică în Republica Moldova, platzforma.md ↩︎

  14. Scrisoare deschisă împotriva implicării Bisericii Ortodoxe din Moldova în campania electorală, platzforma.md ↩︎

  15. Postarea FB Ion Andronache, facebook.com ↩︎