Von Liana Kupreishvili
In Georgia, some people feel like they have to choose between saving their health or their souls.
Confirmed cases of coronavirus – 610
In quarantine mode – 5,133
Deaths – 9
The first case of coronavirus in Georgia was confirmed on February 26, 2020. On March 21, a state of emergency was declared by the government. A curfew was imposed in Georgia from 9 p.m. on March 31 and it is due to last until May 11. Citizens are not allowed to go out on the streets from 9 p.m. until 6 am. The ban applies to everyone, except for the emergency services and clergy if they are using vehicles. The powerful Orthodox Church, to which the majority of the population of Georgia belongs, has developed its own ways of bypassing social-distancing rules.
On March 14, it emerged that the patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church had refused to utilize single-use spoons for communion. After the sacrament, the parishioners could still receive a drink (“sweetness”, that is, concentrated wine) in a single-use cup or in their own cup. Reverends noted that the sacrament was instituted by the Saviour Himself at a feast and thus the Orthodox Church would not be changing its rules. Additionally, Christians were advised by the Church to drink holy water every morning on an empty stomach to prevent coronavirus. They should also practice prayers at home and at work. The Patriarch decreed that every Sunday at 12 pm, bells should be rung in all churches and the parishioners, whether in churches or elsewhere, should pray together.
For the Easter Vigil, the church exploited a loophole to avoid the adherence to the nationwide curfew. Parishioners went to their churches before the curfew hour began at 9 p.m. at night and left after it was over at 6 o’clock in the morning, as they were instructed by the spokesman for the Patriarchate.
Furthermore, before Easter there were street blessings (disinfections) with holy water. A media war was initiated pitting clergy against doctors who were said “to be inducing panick, separating themselves from God and prohibiting them from doing their duty”. Clergy have voiced apocalyptic preaching about the imposed restrictions being a sign of the end of days. On April 25, the Georgian Patriarchate issued a statement which made not only the Government of Georgia and the representatives of the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health feel uneasy, but the whole Christian population of the country. The letter introduced new rules such as:
“In Churches (especially small ones) services should, if possible, be performed in the open air. Those who are sick should stay at home until they have fully recovered; afterwards, they can attend services. People inside churches should maintain a distance of as 2 meters and outside 1.5 meters. (For this purpose, places to stand and loudspeakers should be marked in advance).” But the major statement hidden between the lines was “Communion from one chalice is the highest confirmation of the unity in Christ and love of one another, and he who refuses to do so, refuses the Saviour!”
This statement made lot of believers anxious; those who feared for their health and the health of the older and younger members of their families now had no choice. As church is the most powerful and significant part of the daily life of many Georgian citizens, this strict statement became a problem for the Government and local health organizations. It was perceived as blackmail by a minority of the population, while the majority is anxious even to think negatively about the Church.
Sensuousness (such as kissing icons, crosses, church walls and priests’ hands, drinking from the same chalice), religious ignorance, and apocalypticism – all pose a sizable threat to the Georgian community today. After April 19, 2020 (Easter), epidemiologists from the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health started preparing for the worst-case scenario after the Easter liturgies held in churches in Georgia, fearing for a spike in the number of infections, but “thanks to God” no Easter cluster was detected.