Greece's Orthodox Church said on Monday it would defy a government lockdown order imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus
and open churches to the faithful during the Epiphany celebration on Jan. 6.
Greece tightened coronavirus curbs for a week from Sunday and reversed an earlier decision to allow Epiphany services after hospitals struggled to deal with a flood of new cases.
The Greek Orthodox Church said it had written to the government urging it to respect the agreement allowing Epiphany services to go ahead.
"The Holy Synod... does not concur with government measures regarding the operation of churches and insists on what was initially agreed with the state - that churches will stay open for the participation of the faithful in the Mass of Epiphany," it said in a press release.
The letter marks a rare show of dissent by Church authorities, which until now have largely respected government restrictions curbing religious services along with other public activities during the pandemic.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Epiphany is one of the most important religious feasts and commemorates the baptism of Christ and the revelation of the Holy Trinity.
As well as church services, it is traditionally marked by popular celebrations including one in which swimmers retrieve a cross thrown into the water by a priest. The government had already banned such celebrations but had agreed to allow a limited number of worshippers to take part in church services.
A government official said lockdown laws applied to everyone equally. "We hope the Church will realize the urgency of the moment for society, as it has responsibly done so far," the official said.
While Greece has been more successful than many European countries in containing the spread of the coronavirus, its health services, badly weakened by years of financial crisis, have struggled to cope with thousands of new cases.
On Monday, health officials reported a total of 140,526 infections and 5,011 COVID-related deaths since the first coronavirus case was detected in February.