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Orthodox Churches Hold Diminished Easter Services Amid Pandemic 

An Orthodox Church priest speaks to believers during a live broadcast in an empty church in Moscow, Russia, April 19, 2020.

Orthodox Christians observed the Easter holiday amid extraordinary coronavirus-related restrictions on services that forced many parishioners to watch services on TV or online.

Church leaders have struggled to figure out how to observe the April 19 holiday — the holiest day in the Orthodox calendar — while avoiding spreading the coronavirus.

Some local parishes have defied orders from public health officials and church leaders and vowed to allow people to attend services in person.

In Russia and Ukraine, two of the biggest Orthodox denominations, priests in St. Petersburg and Kyiv held services beginning late on April 18 that were televised and shown online.

Police deployed outside churches in Ukraine to ensure that anyone who came remained outside and observed regulations calling for social distancing and a ban on large gatherings.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Ukrainians to celebrate from home. Most church leaders complied and agreed to broadcast their services.

One exception was the famed Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery, where police regulated entry to the church to one worshipper at a time. The complex was placed under quarantine after more than 90 of its monks were identified as infected with the coronavirus. At least two have died.

The monastery is controlled by a rival Orthodox denomination in Ukraine that is loyal to the Russian church in Moscow.

The Russian Orthodox Church ordered churches to close their doors to large groups during the week leading up to the holiday.

Patriarch Kirill led the Russian church’s main service on April 18 at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. In an Easter sermon, he said Orthodox Christians should not despair in difficult circumstances and should not panic.

President Vladimir Putin, who has regularly attended the nighttime rituals in the past, did not attend this year.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin stayed at his suburban presidential residence and lit a candle at a chapel on the property.

The most contentious debate over Orthodox Easter occurred in Georgia, where church leaders and the government agreed to allow parishioners to attend dusk-to-dawn Easter vigil services.

The agreement meant worshippers were allowed to attend overnight services in large cathedrals despite a curfew, but they were required to maintain a distance of 2 meters. Those who attend small churches had to remain outside.

Dozens went to the main cathedral in Tbilisi, where Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II said that the virus had caused fear among many people.

In Bulgaria, the government urged people not to attend services but didn’t ban them. Hundreds flocked to outdoor services late on April 18, but many opted to watch on television.

"In the current situation, we must be better and more humble," Prime Minister Boyko Borisov wrote in Facebook. "Let's do everything we can to be proud of our decisions and actions in years to come."

Easter for the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christian is celebrated about a week after Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians observe the holiday.