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‘Stay home or what happened to Italy will happen to us’ Georgian health official warns churchgoers

16 April 2020
A church service in Tbilisi‘s Sameba Trinity Cathedral. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Health officials in Georgia have warned that the country could face a coronavirus outbreak as serious as Italy if people flock to Churches over the Easter weekend. The Georgian Orthodox Church is preparing to host thousands of worshippers overnight, a decision they say was coordinated with the government. 

‘Eventually, we took all the necessary measures in order to prevent the closure of churches during these tough times and to allow parishioners to celebrate this day traditionally’, Church spokesperson Andria Jagmaidze said on Wednesday.

‘We will note all the recommendations given by the government and health officials’, he added.

Health Minister Ekaterine Tikaradze told the Georgian Public Broadcaster on Wednesday that the government wanted to avoid a confrontation with the Church. 

‘Doctors care about physical health and the church about spiritual health’, she said

Later on Wednesday, Shalva Kekelia the head of the Saint Andrew I Church in Tbilisi’s Vake District, announced they were preparing space for 2,000 churchgoers to attend the celebration of Easter in the church. 

Several key health officials have called on the public to stay home over easter in order to prevent a disaster.

‘Stay home, or what happened to Italy will happen to us’, Deputy head of National Centre for Disease Control, Paata Imnadze, said on Wednesday.

‘We won’t be able to count the coffins. Is this what we want? Stay home.’

‘A violation of the rule of law’

The Church’s insistence on holding public celebrations over Easter has been met with harsh criticism from some quarters, including several theologians. 

Basil Kobakhidze, a theologian known for his criticism of the Georgian Orthodox Church, wrote on Facebook on Thursday that ‘we are watching a massacre of people by the priests’.

‘Each priest who holds communion and allows people to participate in it is holding a service for satan’, he said. 

‘Each and every one of them, starting from [head of the Church Patriarch Ilia II], should be arrested’, said Kobakhidze.

On 14 April, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia announced that churches across the country would remain open despite the growing spread of coronavirus in the country. As Easter celebrations approach, it emerged on Tuesday that an Orthodox priest had tested positive for the virus.

‘Are we an Orthodox state which has thousands of years of experience of collaboration between the church and the state?!’, Gakharia asked rhetorically during the briefing. According to the Georgian constitution, the country has no state religion and is a secular state.

The Tolerance and Diversity Institute, a Tbilisi based human rights group, slammed the PM’s statement, accusing him of violating the principle of the rule of law. 

‘By showing weak and anti-state position with regard to the Patriarchate of Georgia, the Georgian Government proved that it’s incapable of protecting the lives and the health of its citizens’.

They said the government’s statements were problematic for several reasons, including privileging the clergy.