By Ioannis Konidaris*

On Sunday, 25 July all Orthodox Churches around Greece were sent an Encyclical issued by the Holy Synod with the heading “To the People [Congregation]” with the purpose, according to the report of a creditable daily, “to mobilise priests and the people to be vaccinated”.

The much-awaited Encyclical came straight on the heels of a meeting between Archbishop Ieronymos and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and another meeting between the Holy Synod, Health Minister Vasilis Kikilias, and the head of the National Committee on COVID-19, Professor of Epidemiology Sotiris Tsiodras.

Oddly enough, the Encyclical is entitled “Christians ask about the vaccine and our doctors answer” and it presents 12 questions and answers regarding all the queries the faithful may have. The experts answered in writing and these answers were included in the body of the Encyclical!

There are two concise paragraphs that might well have been the full text of the encyclical.

After underlining that vaccination is the paramount act of responsibility toward our fellow human beings and that the vaccine in no way contradicts Orthodox Christian teaching, the Encyclical concludes thusly:

“Consequently, members of the Church can freely, in accordance with their doctors’ recommendation, choose to be vaccinated without any fear that the choice will have any repercussions on their relationship with God and the Church or on their very salvation.”

I fear that this bland wording does not constitute a clear urging without reservations, without half-hearted rhetoric, or lessons in medicine – which are anyway difficult to stomach during the Divine Liturgy especially when they include scientific terms – that the faithful be vaccinated

Few, perfectly clear words were needed. I do not know who wrote the Encyclical or how many of the 12- member Holy Synod members backed this phraseology.

I do know from the media, however, the intense reactions of vaccine deniers to even this lukewarm wording in many churches nationwide. I know that among the faithful there are pockets of vaccine deniers who cannot even keep decorum and spew vulgarities during church services.

Those Metropolitan bishops who publicly supported compulsory vaccination – one even suspended a priest who refused to be vaccinated – should be praised.

In July I wrote an article supporting compulsory vaccination of clergymen (To Vima, 11.7.2021).

If the Holy Synod, in conjunction with the timidity of the state, does not dare to institute compulsory vaccination– as there are obviously different views in the Synod – let local Metropolitans decide for their dioceses and let them as is their right call to order those who disagree.

I am extremely concerned about the aftermath of the great 15 August feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary – we call it the Easter of summer – as thousands of people crowded together not only at major shrines like Tinos, Paros, and Soumela, but indeed in almost every corner of the country.

This will create, along with the lagging pace of the vaccine rollout and lax enforcement of public health measures, an explosive mixture. Combined with the start of the school year in September we may well have a dangerous surge in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalisation.

I sincerely hope I am wrong.

*Ioannis Konidaris is Emeritus Professor of Church Law at Athens University Law School