Virus deaths of senior Serb religious leaders triggers alarm

Full Screen
1 / 4

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

In this photo taken Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, church leaders open the coffin of Patriarch Irinej during the procession at the St. Sava Temple in Belgrade, Serbia. After the two most senior Serbian Orthodox Church leaders died within a month after testing positive with the coronavirus, health experts and even hardcore believers are starting to worry. The spread of the virus within the largest religious group in the Balkans is getting more alarming by the day. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE – After the two most senior Serbian Orthodox Church leaders died within a month after testing positive with the coronavirus, health experts and even hardcore believers are starting to worry. The spread of the virus within the largest religious group in the Balkans is getting more alarming by the day.

A senior Orthodox Church priest, who took part in the prayers at the funeral of Serbian Patriarch Irinej on Sunday when most of the preventive measures against the coronavirus were ignored, has tested positive for COVID-19, Serbia’s state TV said Monday.

Bishop David is the latest person among the top clergy to get the virus, raising concerns in the Balkans that the Orthodox Church could be helping to spread the virus with its doctrine that true believers can't get infected during Holy Communion and other church services.

But the two most senior Serb religious leaders — the patriarch and Bishop Amfilohije — died after COVID-19 complications. They both downplayed the dangers of the pandemic, avoided wearing masks in public and Amfilohije described large religious gatherings as “God’s vaccine.”

Thousands of people on Sunday attended the funeral of the Serbian patriarch. Irinej, 90, who died on Friday, three weeks after attending the funeral of Amfilohije in neighboring Montenegro during which mourners kissed his remains lying in an open casket.

On Sunday, many mourners and most priests holding the funeral service in the massive St. Sava Temple in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, didn’t wear masks or adhere to social distancing inside the church, kissing the glass shield covering Irinej’s remains and even using a single spoon during Holy Communion.

Although the church has asked mourners to keep their distance and wear face masks in line with the anti-virus recommendations, even priests inside the temple were without masks.

Serbian epidemiologists have said there was no way they could ban the traditional funeral prayers.