SOFIA (Reuters) - Hundreds of Bulgarian Christians flocked to the Orthodox temples for outdoor services on a surreal Saturday night with the Balkan state one of the few countries where churches remained open over the Easter holidays amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Easter holiday is the most significant date on the calendar for the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians with thousands of Bulgarians usually packing the churches and their ancestral homes all around the country to celebrate Christ’s resurrection.
This year many Bulgarians opted to watch services live on TV instead after the government urged people to celebrate and pray from home. But 58-year-old Radka Petrova, a keen church-goer, said she was not afraid of “that virus because the church is a place of healing”.
“I’m here because my faith is strong and I’m not afraid,” Petrova, wearing a protective mask, told Reuters. “I remember the communist times and how mounted policemen used to surround the church to intimidate worshippers.”
Bulgarians were unable to practise or study the Christian faith freely during the communist regime, which ended in 1989.
“It’s only a virus and we’ll defeat it... Christ is risen!Today we’re celebrating hope in a sea of despair.”
The restrictions, imposed due to the coronavirus outbreak, have meant observing an Easter Sunday unlike any Bulgarians have lived through before.
But while most worshippers maintained social distancing between each other to stem transmission of the virus, clergymen largely failed to observe it during the services.
The decision to keep churches open has sparked an intense debate on social media in Bulgaria. Many fear churches could become centres of contagion and pose risks to the most vulnerable - the elderly - jeopardising the collective effort to contain the disease.
Bulgaria, which declared a state of emergency until May 13, has imposed a ban on groups of more than two adults congregating together. It has shut schools, restaurants and other public venues and imposed a ban on non-essential travel.
“In the current situation, we must be better and more humble,” Prime Minister Boyko Borissov wrote in Facebook. “Let’s do everything we can to be proud of our decisions and actions in years to come.”
The COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus has claimed 41 lives across Bulgaria and infected nearly 900 people - one of the lowest rates in Europe.
“On Easter, our thoughts and prayers will be with those who are no longer among us and those who are fighting this vile disease, doctors and medical workers in particular and everyone who is at the forefront of the fight for life,” Bulgarian Patriarch Neophyte said.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has been criticised on social media for keeping its houses of worship open in spite of the coronavirus crisis. Many Bulgarians also pointed fingers at the church for keeping the practices of people kissing icons in churches, and using shared spoons during communion services.
The coronavirus pandemic has shut down traditional Easter celebrations in many Orthodox Christian countries, including Bulgarian neighbours Greece, Romania and Serbia.
Easter mass was held in churches across Romania, Greece and Cyprus but they remained closed to the public. The official clergy in the three countries has urged people to stay away and watch the service either on radio or TV.
Serbia imposed an 84-hours lockdown set to last from Friday afternoon until early on Tuesday to keep people inside during Easter festivities.
Ukraine effectively banned church services to the general public by stipulating that only 10 people are allowed to be present at a service. The government has also repeatedly urged people to stay at home.
Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Additional reporting by Luiza Ilie, Michele Kambas, Aleksandar Vasovic and Matthias Williams; Editing by Sandra Maler