North Macedonia’s Orthodox Church Could Become a Coronavirus Super-Spreader

Despite an otherwise strict nationwide lockdown, the government’s politically motivated decision to allow Orthodox Christians to take communion from shared spoons could unleash a major COVID-19 outbreak.

An Orthodox believer with a protective mask attends a religious service at an Orthodox church in Skopje, North Macedonia, on April 16.
An Orthodox believer with a protective mask attends a religious service at an Orthodox church in Skopje, North Macedonia, on April 16. ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Easter and religious holidays this year looked different than they have in previous years.

The Vatican decided to close the churches for Easter, and Pope Francis delivered his “Urbi et Orbi” message (a blessing reserved for solemn occasions) behind the closed doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. Saudi Arabia banned prayers at mosques. In Greece, the Greek Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod said all churches would remain closed during the Easter period, and it invited believers to pray at home.

Greece’s northern neighbor, North Macedonia, however, took a different route.

The country’s government, which has otherwise closed down almost all nonessential businesses and even went as far as to forbid people from leaving their homes at various times, decided to allow churches to be open on the Orthodox Maundy Thursday and Good Friday (April 16 and April 17 given that in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Easter this year occurred one week after the Catholic Easter). The Macedonian Orthodox Church, for its part, acted in line with what it had previously promised it intended to do: use the two days to give communion to the people inside with shared spoons.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

When the television station Telma asked Metropolitan Timothy, a spokesman for the Macedonian Orthodox Church, whether priests would keep using the same spoon to give communion to people given the worldwide pandemic, he said, “Absolutely.” “Whoever is scared shouldn’t come,” he added. “We aren’t going to change a centuries-old tradition.”

In response to this, the government of North Macedonia decided to turn a blind eye. Unlike in Iran, where President Hassan Rouhani said mosques would be closed until at least May 4, or the more moderate approach in Israel, which allowed outdoor prayer for up to 19 people, North Macedonia’s lawmakers did not even go as far as banning serving communion or ordering priests to do it using disposable plastic spoons.

Due to the government-imposed curfew, people weren’t allowed to leave their homes on the weekend (during Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday), so the days the church promised to give communion to believers were Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Last Thursday and Friday, believers flocked to churches, lining up to be served communion by the priests. Aside from taking communion, many believers used the time spent in church to kiss the same icons.

Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski, the head of North Macedonia’s government, publicly stated that churches would be allowed to remain open for those two days.

“We haven’t issued a decree for closing down religious objects nor for not practicing religion because those can’t be issued,” Spasovski said last week. “Regardless of the state the country’s in, that’s a right that is inviolable.”

Article 8 of North Macedonia’s Law on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Communities, and Religious Groups says that “the freedom to express one’s religion or belief can be limited by law only if such limitation is indispensable to the interests of public safety, public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

The act of communion in the Eastern Orthodox Church involves priests placing bread into a wine-filled chalice. The bread and the wine symbolize the body and blood of Christ. As the bread soaks in the wine, the priests use the same spoon to put a piece of the bread into the mouth of each believer. At the end, the priest drinks whatever wine is left in the chalice.

In an interview with TV21, Presbyter Boban Mitevski from the archbishop’s cabinet went so far as to blame nonbelievers. “They haven’t provided any facts that communion and using the same spoon could transmit any disease,” he said.

Last Thursday and Friday, believers flocked to churches, lining up to be served communion by the priests. Aside from taking communion, many believers used the time spent in church to kiss the same icons.

It is hard to pin down a number on how many people went to church services, but churches across the country were open. The scary part is that these people might take up to two weeks to feel any symptoms and many may unwittingly infect people around them during that time.

The services drew comparisons to a soccer game hosted by Atalanta, a Bergamo-based team in Italy’s Serie A, which many believe was significant in spreading the virus in that region, and the church meetings that spread it in South Korea. These events happened in February. Clearly, the world’s understanding of the virus has evolved greatly since then.

This decision to allow church services has led many to conclude that the same government that has closed businesses, imposed sanctions on people’s movement, and has overall taken the coronavirus issue very seriously decided to make an exception for religious groups for strictly populist reasons. The Macedonian Orthodox Church is an influential institution with plenty of followers, and the fact that it got special treatment is an exemplary case of a government acting irresponsibly in the face of a worldwide pandemic and impending domestic elections.

North Macedonia joined NATO on March 27. The country, which has long been striving for a NATO and EU membership invitation, was able to achieve the coveted feat after overcoming a decades-long naming dispute with Greece, which saw the country, in the end, add “North” in front of Macedonia. (Both countries consider the name Macedonia to be an indelible part of their history and culture.) Making the compromise, for the traditionally left-leaning political party in power that brokered the deal, came at a cost. Internally, a sizable amount of the population opposed the deal and blamed the party for lack of patriotism and for selling off national interests.

Like in many other Balkan countries, in North Macedonia the idea of religious belonging goes hand in hand with ethnic pride in forming national identity. The Macedonian Orthodox Church is the largest religious organization in the country and has followers in both urban and rural areas.

So why, then, would the government suddenly allow for hundreds of people to put the same spoon in their mouths—when it is clear that doing so goes against all the recommendations of its own health minister and medical experts, who have been reiterating the importance of maintaining social distance and coughing in a tissue so as to not spread the virus through droplets of saliva?

“Naked political opportunism” is what Goran Mihajlovski, one of the most famous Macedonian columnists, called it in his weekly column for the online news outlet Sakam Da Kazam.

What makes the decision to allow churches to give communion with the same spoon that much more strange is that North Macedonia has otherwise imposed particularly stringent measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The city of Debar, where the first cluster of cases appeared, has been under total quarantine since March 14. North Macedonia’s government decided to close down all schools on March 10, several days before countries that were hit much harder by the virus, including France and the United Kingdom, did. Grocery stores face large fines if they don’t have a guard outside the store who sprays disinfectant and makes sure there are at least 6 feet in between customers.

Perhaps the most radical measure of all? For a few weeks now, residents—except for those carrying special permits, like doctors, certain pharmacy workers, soldiers, firefighters, police, and people who take care of the elderly—have not been allowed to leave their homes at all on weekends and between 4 p.m. and 5 a.m. on weekdays.

At the forefront of the country’s response to the threat is its health minister, Venko Filipce. With his calm, clear, and concise press briefings, Filipce, a neurosurgeon by training, has become for Macedonians what Gov. Andrew Cuomo is for New Yorkers—a voice of objectivity and comforting professionalism. The health minister, aided by a number of virologists and epidemiologists, has led a wide-reaching campaign to explain the behavioral patterns people should implement in order to help flatten the curve. So far, the government has been able to manage the number of new cases, so as to not overburden the country’s health system.

At 4 p.m. on Good Friday (April 17) in North Macedonia, the longest quarantine in the country’s recent history began. It was intended to last until 5 a.m. on Tuesday (April 21), a total of 85 hours. The only people allowed to leave their homes during this time were people with special permits.

The rest stayed at home for more than three and a half days to decrease the chances of closely interacting with someone outside their household. There is no way of knowing, at least at the moment, how many people who took communion were carrying the virus, but it is a fact that any possible transmission in that setting could have been easily prevented by simply not allowing churches to serve communion with the same spoon.

North Macedonia was set to have early parliamentary elections on April 12 that were postponed due to the coronavirus. The new date will not be decided until after the end of the state of emergency.

For a government that has done well on the international stage but that has been marred internally by inefficiency, corruption at home, and an inability to meet its own promises of delivering the much-needed judicial reforms, it needs every vote it can get.

The largest opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, a traditionally right-wing party that is usually the first one to criticize the government, was eerily silent on the issue of keeping the churches open and using the same spoon. The opposition party’s president himself went to church on Good Friday and took photos, which party officials posted on social media.

The concept of appealing to religious voters isn’t a novelty invented by Macedonian politicians. One of the more well-known examples of such populism is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who deemed churches essential services, exempted them from coronavirus lockdowns, and called them “the last shelter” for many people. Another one is the far-right Italian politician, and up until recently a deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, who called on churches to reopen for Easter.

The Macedonian example illustrates the power of organized religion going against common sense, and the government’s servility to its voting bloc, no matter the consequences.

For now, all that responsible Eastern Orthodox Christians, members of other religions, atheists, and agnostics across the country can do is pray or hope that this doesn’t end up causing an explosion in the numbers of infected people in the days and weeks to come. The damage may already be done.

Igor Bosilkovski is a freelance journalist. He writes as a contributor for Forbes, and runs the website StorySquare, which connects stories written by freelancers to media outlets. Twitter: @IgorBosilkovski

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