On Sunday, Kirill, the Orthodox Church’s Primate, instructed believers to avoid chapels. His move comes as cases of Covid-19 in Russia have risen to 1,836, with over a thousand of these in the capital.

Speaking in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on Sunday, the patriarch called for strict compliance with the orders of Russian authorities. Acknowledging that there is “a big risk of an epidemic,” he noted how many citizens do not quite realize the full seriousness of the disease and its impact in other countries, especially Italy. Although Russia’s numbers are climbing quickly, its confirmed cases are still way behind Italy’s 97,689.

“I preach from the pulpit and call people to come to church, to defy the gravity of their own evil will and external circumstances; I have devoted my life to this call, and I hope you understand how hard it is for me to say today: refrain from visiting churches,” he declared. Considering the high average age of churchgoers, his intervention could potentially save lives.

In recent weeks the Church has come under some criticism for its handling of the outbreak, but has proceeded undeterred. On the 14th March, Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Synodal Department for External Church Relations, told TV channel Russia-24 that they would “neither close churches nor cancel services.” Furthermore, in the last few days, as containment measures have been ramped up across the country, Orthodox leaders continued to insist the institution would “fulfil its pastoral duty.”

Throughout March, photos of the faithful kissing church icons and receiving communion from communal spoons have been shared widely on social media.

While most Russian regions are yet to enact laws targeting religious gatherings, Saint Petersburg’s Governor Alexander Beglov announced a brief ban on visiting sacred sites. The Church declared his decree unconstitutional.

In the last day, 302 new cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Russia, located in 35 different regions. Some of the more remote areas of the country, such as Kalmykia and Altai, had their first diagnoses. According to official figures, in Russia 66 people have recovered, and nine have died.

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