The message from Greek officials is the same as it is from governments around the world: get vaccinated, get vaccinated, get vaccinated.
But with the inoculation campaign slowing and the virus spreading, the Greek authorities are turning to the leaders of the country’s powerful Orthodox Church to carry the message to the hesitant.
With the Delta variant driving a surge in cases, Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias and the government’s chief epidemiologist, Sotiris Tsiodras, visited the church’s Holy Synod to ask Archbishop Ieronymos to pull renegade clerics into line.
After the visit, the church sent a circular to its clergy this week describing vaccination as “the greatest act of responsibility toward one’s fellow human being.”
It also offered answers to common questions and sought to clear up misinformation. Clerics have been told to distribute the circular to churchgoers on Sunday and deliver sermons extolling the vaccine’s benefits.
The move followed a flurry of discussions between government health officials and senior clerics aimed at quelling objections among priests to the vaccination drive. Some clerics have been using their sermons to stoke vaccine hesitancy while others have warned that churchgoers getting shots will be denied holy communion.
In Thessaloniki in northern Greece, a priest was removed from his parish this month after telling worshipers to not get the vaccine and to defy Covid regulations. In nearby Halkidiki, at mass celebrating the Orthodox Easter, another priest banned vaccinated and masked worshipers from attending his services, describing pressure to get the vaccine as “diabolical” and “fascist.”
It remains to be seen if the church hierarchy can control the message across the country, but the hope was the circular would carry special weight with the faithful.
It cast the vaccine as “a gift from God” and called on the faithful not to heed voices “which lack scientific grounding or ecclesiastical spirit.” It also sought to counter claims by some anti-vaccine protesters, including conspiracy theories about the shot containing embryonic cells or microchips designed to monitor people’s movements.
Greek authorities are hoping the appeal to the faithful will bolster a slowing vaccination campaign, with only 44 percent of Greece’s nearly 11 million citizens fully vaccinated.
Beyond the appeal to the faithful, the country has sought to strike a balance in the restrictions it is imposing as it reopens.
It has required health workers to get shots and has devised a plan that puts vaccinations at the center of reopening policies — without going so far as to essentially bar the unvaccinated.
After allowing outdoor service in May, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and theaters were allowed to resume indoor operation on July 15.
According to the government’s scheme, businesses will declare whether they intend to host only those who have been vaccinated — as well as those who have recovered from a coronavirus infection — or whether they will open for all customers and then display a corresponding sticker at their entrance.
Those choosing to host only vaccinated customers are permitted to operate at a higher capacity.