Orthodox churches throughout Eastern Europe and Russia are prepared to celebrate Easter Sunday on April 19 amid coronavirus restrictions that will curtail ceremonies normally steeped in symbolism and tradition.
The Easter holiday is the most significant date on the calendar for the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians.
Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, has urged the faithful to adhere to government measures and World Health Organization guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. But keeping people out of churches hasn't proved easy.
In Moscow, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced on April 18 that President Vladimir Putin will not attend a traditional Orthodox Easter vigil at Christ The Savior Church because of the pandemic.
Peskov said Putin would stay at his home, the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, and light a candle at a chapel on the property.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which observes Easter Sunday on April 19, ordered churches to close their doors to large groups during the week leading up to the holiday.
While church leaders in Romania and Serbia have accepted bans on public gatherings, prominent Orthodox figures in both countries have implored the government to allow exceptions.
Some clergy members in Serbia balked at restrictions after authorities extended a curfew to run for 84 hours starting on April 17 -- an attempt to limit contacts during the weekend.
Following the announcement, the conservative Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) Synod requested a five-hour break in the curfew to allow believers to attend the morning liturgy.
That forced Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to telephone the head of the SPC, Patriarch Irinej, and press him to make the clergy comply with restrictions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has urged Ukrainians to celebrate from home out of concern that the disease that has killed 133 people in the country will spread further.
Most church leaders in Ukraine have complied, agreeing to broadcast their services online and on television.
The government has not opted to close churches but effectively barred attendance by not allowing services with more than 10 people and by only allowing people to travel in public places alone or in pairs.
The Bulgarian government has urged people not to attend services though it hasn’t banned them.
Churches remain open in Bulgaria even as the government banned traffic from entering and leaving the capital Sofia.
The most contentious debate over Orthodox Easter has occurred in Georgia, where church leaders and the government agreed to allow parishioners to attend dusk-to-dawn Easter vigil services.
The agreement provides worshippers a way around a curfew and other restrictive measures.
Worshippers in Georgia are allowed to attend services in large cathedrals on April 18 and April 19, provided they maintain a distance of two meters. Those who attend small churches are to remain outside their church building.
The agreement says parishioners should arrive for services before 9 p.m. on April 18 and leave after 6 a.m. on April 19.