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Coronavirus Sparks Church-State Controversy in Greece

Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant inside a classroom at a primary school in Athens, March 9, 2020.
Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant inside a classroom at a primary school in Athens, March 9, 2020.

Greece has shut down schools, theaters and large public gatherings in three major regions of the country in the latest sweep of measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Cases have climbed dramatically in the country after health officials detected the virus among travelers returning from the Middle East. The measures have now pit health authorities against the powerful Greek Orthodox Church.

Health officials have suspended all mass gatherings at theaters, cinemas, museums and sports events in the Peloponnese regions of Achaia and Ileia as well as the island of Zakynthos.

Coronavirus cases in Greece tripled in recent days when travelers who had returned from a pilgrimage to Israel and Egypt were detected with the virus. Among them, a 65-year-old man battling pneumonia in a hospital isolation unit in the western port city of Patras.

A number of people were listed in serious condition.

Authorities are preparing for numbers to soar, potentially affecting up to 15 percent of Greece’s population of 15 million.

That means more than 5,000 intensive care units might be needed, raising concerns because only a fraction of them are operating – a result of a brutal eight-year financial crisis that drastically reduced hospital staff and resources.

George Patoulis, the regional governor of Attica, the biggest and most densely populated region of Greece, is calling for urgent measures.

Patoulis says he wants the government to hire extra medical staff and to stock up on masks, soap, antiseptic solutions and gloves at hospitals. He is also urging authorities to open up at least 100 more intensive care units in and around the capital of Athens.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis chaired a crisis meeting on Sunday to chart a strategy that would help contain the spread of the virus from Greece’s western-hit region to other parts of the country.

He also reached out to the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, which has refused to shut down churches and says priests will not stop distributing holy communion.

On a major religious holiday on Sunday, thousands of followers like this pensioner remained undeterred.

Of course we are continuing to take holy communion, she says, because we have faith in God and everything is in His hands.

The Greek president, who holds a mostly ceremonial role, was among those attending Mass, flanked by several senior ministers.

With Orthodox Easter approaching in April, church attendance is high, mainly among older followers.

But concerns over the virus’ fallout in neighboring Italy has some people expecting the senior council of bishops in Greece to take extraordinary measures soon. The bishops have called an emergency meeting this week.

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