ATHENS—COVID-19 has been tearing through Orthodox Christian communities across Greece, infecting one unvaccinated religious leader after another and prompting some priests and monks to rethink their stance on the jabs.
Last month, at least four unvaccinated monks from Mount Athos, a COVID hotbed and one of the most important centers of Eastern Orthodox monasticism in the world, died of the virus. The issue extends to priests, too: Just last week, a priest in the city of Patra and a 46-year-old Archimandrite in Thessaloniki died of COVID-19. Both were unvaccinated.
Following their deaths, Greek media outlets reported that one of the deceased monks from Mount Athos had previously expressed his desire to get vaccinated, but that his elder guide had forbidden him from getting the jab. This is not uncommon in the Greek Orthodox Church. In the past two years, a large number of clerics have been openly (and secretly) opposing pandemic measures including lockdowns, curfews, and masks—and now vaccines.
“Among those who spread phobias and lies about vaccines, those who wear cassocks are a minority, but they are the ones who cause the most damage to public health and the mental state of the people,” Archimandrite Bartholomew, abbot of the Holy Monastery of Esphigmenou in Mount Athos, wrote in a Facebook statement on Nov. 15. “The situation has reached the point of no return. It smells of death all over Greece.” The post went on: “Those who spread lies about the pandemic seek power and fame, gaining an audience and submissive followers. They do not cultivate virtues in people… [they’re] taking advantage of their fears and passions.”
That said, within the past couple of months, there seems to have been a dramatic spike in the number of priests getting jabbed—and it appears as though COVID outbreaks within the clergy, with some infections ending in death, have played an important role in that shift.
According to Nikos Tzanakis, professor of pulmonology at the University of Crete, only around 30-40 percent of the clergy were vaccinated in September. “The fact that many of them got sick with COVID-19 and some died, and also the measures taken by the government and the local Metropolitans threatening to put them on hold is for sure a strong motivation. I now estimate that around 70 percent of priests are vaccinated throughout Greece,” he told The Daily Beast.
The fourth wave that hit Greece in early autumn brought a surge of new COVID cases, hitting a record number of 8,613 new cases in just one day in early November, the highest the country has seen so far. More than 17,000 people have died from the virus in Greece since the beginning of the pandemic. According to official records from the National Public Health Organization (NPHO), the vast majority of infected people who are landing in hospital ICUs are unvaccinated.
At the same time, anti-vaccine groups in Greece have been campaigning and protesting against the vaccine and government measures since the first vaccines arrived in the country on Christmas Day last year. In some cases, clerics played a leading role in the anti-vaccine push. Although the leaders of the Greek Orthodox church have somewhat complied with the rules and expressed their support to the vaccination campaign, it’s the “neighborhood priests” who have done the most damage.
For months, local priests all around Greece have been sabotaging the vaccination campaign by urging their flock not to get the vaccine in their weekly sermon and even refusing entry to church-goers who are vaccinated or masked. Among the strongest deniers of the vaccine was the Metropolitan from Aetolia and Acarnania, Kosmas, who on Nov. 18 tested positive for COVID. Though his health was deteriorating, he initially refused to be hospitalized up until Wednesday night. In one of his speeches last year, Kosmas said: “God does not allow you to be infected in the church. God does not infect! Let’s understand it.”
“There were much more in the beginning than today,” said the spokesman of the Permanent Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, Metropolitan Timotheos, referring to priests who oppose vaccines. “The fear of death, the rise in new COVID-19 cases, and the fact that we’ve seen that the vaccines are working, made many priests change their mind and get the shot,” he told The Daily Beast.
Monastery officials seem to be slowly warming up to the jab too: In September, around 90 percent of monks were unvaccinated, according to Tzanakis. “They confused the metaphysical with science. And unfortunately that affects people,” Tzanakis said, adding that the number of unvaccinated monks now hovers around about 70 percent.
Though there are no official records from the NPHO on how many clerics have tested positive for COVID-19 and died since the beginning of the pandemic, the signs suggest the number is high. “Here in my area we lost two people, and I know that in neighboring metropolises, even three and four priests have died,” Timotheos said.
Greece is a deeply religious country, home to some 10,000 clerics—the most in Europe in proportion to the population—and more than 9,500 churches. It’s hard to overstate the influence local priests have on their flocks here.
Meanwhile, the Greek government has been doubling down on vaccination efforts ahead of the holiday season, when citizens are known to flood the streets in celebration. Priests and their flocks are now required to submit at least two negative COVID tests per week (which they have to pay for out of their own pocket) or be fully vaccinated to go to church.
“We appeal and urge both our priests and the monks but also our flock to get vaccinated, because it is the only way for all of us to shield ourselves and fight this virus that is afflicting the whole world and our homeland,” said Timotheos.
Some 2,200 Greek citizens have died of COVID-19 in November alone. With the Omicron variant spreading across Europe and the world, daily new cases in Greece range between 6,000-8,000. On Wednesday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced that as of Jan. 16, all unvaccinated citizens above the age of 60 will face fines unless they get jabbed, but stopped short of introducing a new lockdown.
“I strongly believe that with this decision human lives will be saved,” the prime minister said, describing the latest vaccine mandate as “an act of justice for the vaccinated.”