FEW churchgoers appeared to attend the weekly service on Sunday, making police action to enforce the government decree limiting indoor public gatherings to 75 people unnecessary.
Sunday’s services went ahead before the total ban was announced later in the day and when the 75+ ban was still in force, and two churches in Nicosia the Cyprus Mail visited had fewer than 75 people, including the priests and their assistants. In Nicosia’s biggest church, Theou Sofias in Strovolos, which has a capacity of over 600 only around 60 people were present, all seated at a safe distance from each other.
The smaller, Timiou Prodromou, next to the Yiorkion building, had about 30 worshippers scattered around the church. Safety measures were taken, with Father Savvas telling his congregation they did not have to kiss the icons and that it was an individual’s choice whether to take holy communion. Some still kissed the icons, but a church official was on hand to spray the icon with antiseptic immediately after.
There had been questions over whether the authorities would enforce the 75+ ban imposed earlier this week at churches after the Holy Synod had shown open defiance of the government‘s decree. The Holy Synod, which met on Wednesday, issued a statement, saying attending a church service was based on faith, which protected people from any dangers.
It added that churches would hold services without fail, but would not force anyone to attend. “Nor will we tell someone they have to leave a service because the allowed number has been reached, as if it’s any old gathering,” the statement said.
President Anastasiades took a swipe at the church’s stance in his Friday night address to the nation. After expressing his respect to those who turned to religion in these difficult times, he stated: “I want to be very clear: nobody is above or can be exempted from everything that has been decided.”
Conceding that certain safety standards had to be maintained in view of the spread of the coronavirus, the synod called on church staff to maintain a high level of cleanliness, air the churches and clean the icons kissed by the faithful immediately.
One regular churchgoer at Timiou Prodromou, who was at Sunday’s service, said the congregation was usually much larger. “All the very old who attend mass regularly on Sunday did not turn up today,” she said.
“It is understandable and there were no children either. Father Savvas made it clear to the congregation that nobody was obliged to kiss icons nor was it compulsory to take holy communion.”
After the first confirmed cases of the coronavirus, some people questioned whether taking holy communion from a shared spoon would assist the spread of the virus. The Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou stated categorically that people “shouldn’t receive holy communion”.
The Holy Synod’s response was defiant. “It would be blasphemous to think that the body and blood of Christ could transmit any disease or virus,” it said. “Christianity’s centuries-old experience has no single incident of such transmission to display.”
Sunday’s poor attendance at church would appear to have supported the health minister’s view.