But Georgia now faces a serious test. Easter will be celebrated this Sunday on the Eastern Christian calendar, and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church is planning major celebrations that public health officials say could prove deadly.
“The spoon is often not even washed” between uses, Salome Kandelaki, a project coordinator at the Georgian Institute of Politics who researches religion in Georgia, told CNN.
A spokesperson for the Georgian Orthodox Church did not return a request for comment. But church officials have been insistent that its traditional practices do no harm.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister and the church struck a last-minute deal to allow Easter services to be held, but with some precautions to safeguard parishioners from Covid-19. Those measures include social distancing, a police presence, and the scaling back of traditional cemetery visit festivities.
But the government, which said the country is entering a peak phase for transmission of the virus, has continued to call on worshipers to stay home regardless.
“In large churches, during the service, a distance of two meters must be maintained, and in small churches only clergy will serve. Each church will have mobilized patrol police crews to monitor curfew and social distance,” said Irakli Chikovani, the spokesman for Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, reported Tbilisi Week. “Citizens must comply with curfew conditions, otherwise measures will be taken.”
Analysts say the government led by the Georgian Dream party, which has aided the church’s push for a conservative, family values-oriented society, has been reluctant to enforce anti-coronavirus measures when it comes to the church.
“I am still surprised that [the church] does not think ahead,” said Tamuna Khoshtaria, senior researcher at the Caucasus Research Resource Center Georgia, a leading independent, non-profit research and survey group. “But I am more surprised that the government lets them do it, because they have put so much effort into containing the virus. Now it all seems in vain.
Observers say that both church and state are imperiling public health. The Georgian health ministry and prime minister’s office have not yet responded to a CNN request for comment.
The virus has already inflicted casualties among the Georgian faithful.
A forthcoming study by CRRC-Georgia seen by CNN shows a stark reversal. The number of respondents who said they “fully trusted” the Georgian Orthodox Church dropped to 38% last year, down from 75% in 2008.
The Georgian patriarchate’s resistance to change in the current crisis is further pushing some public opinion towards viewpoints critical of the church, with many Georgians voicing criticism on social media.
It remains to be seen how parishioners will react to the limitations on the Easter Service. A church spokesman said curfews would be respected by parishioners who will remain at the church from 9 p.m. Saturday to 6 a.m. Sunday to avoid violating the Prime Minister’s order, according to press reports.
But without the church’s explicit support, any further attempts by the government to halt religious ceremonies unilaterally are unlikely to have much effect. “The patriarchate has called it inexcusable and ‘a crime against God’ if worshippers are prevented from going to church,” Kandelaki said.
This Easter, then, will present a major risk for the country. If huge crowds turn out for Easter celebrations, in contravention of calls from leading public health officials, Georgia’s record of success in fighting coronavirus could be in doubt.