Russia's Orthodox patriarch has urged church members not to visit places of worship during the Covid-19 pandemic, as President Vladimir Putin announced a "non-working week" and other restrictions in a bid to curb its spread.
However, several Orthodox hierarchies have defied government directives and accused anti-religious politicians and media of exploiting the crisis against them.
"I call on everyone to follow orders from Russia's sanitary authorities strictly, before there are losses in our families," Patriarch Kirill said after a Sunday liturgy in Moscow's Christ the Savior Church basilica. "I have been preaching for 51 years, calling people to attend church, so you will understand how difficult it is for me to say now that we should refrain from visiting churches."
The patriarch, whose Holy Synod announced control measures at all churches on 17 March, spoke as monks from the Vysoko-Petrovsky monastery continued evening penitential processions through the Russian capital, and local churches helped organise food and medication deliveries to parishioners at risk of infection.
He said a Moscow Patriarchate working group had concurred with government officials that Christians should now stay away from churches, although clergy would be available for private needs as services were broadcast by TV channels and transmitted via social media.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox church in Bulgaria, where Patriarch Neophyte instructed churches two weeks ago to stay open for liturgies and resist "the pretext of coronavirus infection", called on members at the weekend to observe the country's state of emergency restrictions.
A senior official, Metropolitan Cyprian of Stara Zagora, said churches would stay open "for people with an urgent need to visit", but added that Christians should make the "internal sacrifice" of distancing themselves from others and avoiding touching surfaces.
However, Georgia's Orthodox Holy Synod dismissed calls for a church attendance ban, warning that those rejecting Communion "thereby reject Christ himself". In a message last week, the Synod called for "heightened sanitary practices" at churches, as well as social distancing and smaller congregations, but said "far more people" were currently "crowding into public transport, pharmacies and grocery stores".
"Most of those in top positions have no proper knowledge or belief in the spiritual significance of the sacraments", the Synod added. "We understand some may be hindered by the propaganda disseminated today. But prohibiting church attendance to those who vitally need it is an unjustified offence against God."
Every European state had reported Covid-19 cases by Monday, with infections and deaths aloso rising rapidly in the continent's 11 predominantly Orthodox countries.
In Romania, where the public were barred from church services under a 17 March government ordinance, Orthodox restrictions were extended in line with last week's lockdown by President Klaus Ioannis. However, local media criticised Orthodox clergy in Cluj for dispensing Communion with shared spoons during open-air services, as Patriarch Daniel urged Christians not to "fall into despair.
"If the fear of this disease becomes a psychosis or collective neurosis, we will damage our mental health even if our physical health is unaffected", the 68-year-old patriarch said in an Annunciation Day sermon. "We must stay active when at home through spiritual and intellectual pursuits, encouraging our neighbours, and strengthening our faith and love of God through prayer and good deeds."
In Greece, where the church's governing Holy Synod also asked Orthodox Christians to stay at home until Covid-19 was brought under control, Archbishop Ieronymos Liapis of Athens warned on Saturday that human life, "the Creator's greatest gift on earth", was now endangered by an "unpredictable, dangerous and invisible threat".
In a letter to the country's Education Minister, Niki Kerameus, he also asked for clergy to be permitted to perform services and the divine liturgy behind closed doors, adding that the church's continuing fulfilment of its "sacred mission" would "play a decisive role in keeping the laity calm".
However, Greek media said several conservative bishops had refused to obey government directives, and reported that the 70-year-old Metropolitan Seraphim Stergiulis of Kythira had been arrested for publicly celebrating a Marian devotion on the island, southeast of the Peloponnese, after invoking the fundamental right to religious freedom and warning that church closures would advance a "diabolical plague".
The Greek church's Romfea agency denied widespread social media claims that an apparition of the Virgin Mary, calling on Orthodox believers to paint crosses on their doors, had taken place on Mount Athos, as the peninsula's 20 monasteries staged closed-door vigil services for an end to the coronavirus pandemic last weekend, accompanied by a procession of relics and icons.
In Serbia, Orthodox leaders said services would continue, with parishes complying with social distancing rules, but also cautioned that the pandemic was being used as an "unreasonable and utterly malicious" pretext for denying Communion to Christians.
"The Orthodox Church is being attacked by those ill-disposed towards it. People from well-known anti-church and anti-Serbian circles have begun an orchestrated and slanderous campaign against it," the Serbian Holy Synod noted in a communique.
"They accuse it of violating the binding instructions of the state authorities, and this is a pure lie, since the state does not, and cannot, deal with the content and manner of conducting church services. This is a matter of internal or autonomous church order and legislation, which the state accepts as valid, legitimate and legal under public law."
Ukraine's Moscow-linked Orthodox church, which is locked in conflict with a newly created independent Orthodox denomination, also accused opponents of using the Covid-19 crisis against it, and said police had investigated "groundless claims" that pilgrims had caught the virus while visiting its Dormition-Lavra monastery in Kiev.
In a message last week to the world's 260 million Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, said all churches should be grateful to the front-line medical and nursing professionals, researchers and scientists currently addressing the pandemic, and urged Christians to comply with government instructions.
"Our states, governments and health authorities have primary responsibility for planning, confronting and overcoming this crisis. We might describe them as battlefield commanders against an invisible but well-known enemy, an enemy which has turned against humanity," said the 68-year-old patriarch, who is recognised a honorary primate among 14 main Orthodox churches.
"This trial is an opportunity for us to change for the better towards love and solidarity. Perhaps some have felt these drastic measures undermine or harm our faith. However, what is at stake is not our faith, but our faithful."