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Churches to halt regular services, doors to remain open

St. John's Church in Haapsalu.
St. John's Church in Haapsalu. Source: Juhan Hepner/ERR

In connection with the spread of the novel coronavirus and the emergency situation declared by the Estonian government, the Estonian Council of Churches (EKN) has decided to halt regular religious services. Churches' doors, however, will continue to remain open.

"Church leaders unanimously supported the guidelines given to congregations in the current emergency situation," Minister of Population Riina Solman (Isamaa) told ERR. "And this involves canceling church services or broadcasting them electronically, which is permitted. Church doors will remain open, as churches and religious associations play a very big role in establishing peace of mind and security. But for public church services, which are very crowded, their doors will be closed."

Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) Urmas Viilma wrote on social media that the ban on services in churches is due to the emergency situation declared by the government.

"An emergency situation means the banning of all public events and public gatherings," Viilma wrote. "As church services weren't initially explicitly mentioned in [Thursday's] decision and the term 'public event' leaves a great deal of room for interpretation, we hoped that we could continue operating at least in accordance with church leaders' orders. Unfortunately, that is not the case — holding church services is not permitted."

Viilma noted that church leaders to convene at the EKN meeting observed that in connection with the emergency situation, which affects all churches in Estonia, the activities thereof must unconditionally comply with introduced restrictions unless and until further guidelines are announced and for so long as the emergency situation lasts.

"As the [Easter] holidays are coming up in a few weeks, all churches hope that it will be possible to celebrate them under special conditions," Viilma said. "We are not yet sure whether this will happen. Right now, no one in any church can be sure right now that we will be able to celebrate the holidays as usual. The current situation, however, has been declared according to Estonian law, and must be followed unconditionally. Only the Government of the Republic, which declared the emergency situation, may make exceptions."

The Consistory of the EELK decided on Friday that its congregations are to share information via Christian radio channels (Pereraadio and Raadio 7) as well as congregation homepages, where prerecorded or unattended services will also be broadcast.

The Consistory also confirmed that under freedom of religion, people will retain the right to continue participating in religious rites, giving confessions and accepting Holy Communion, requests for which can be communicated to congregation leaders. Holy Communion is to be administered by dipping Communion bread into the Communion wine and placing it directly on the recipient's tongue. Churches must also be strict in ensuring that Communion chalices and other instruments as well as the hands of those administering Holy Communion are clean and, if necessary, disinfected.

All religious rites must be organized in such a way that the threat of infection to others is ruled out entirely, the Consistory stressed.

All congregations must also pay increased attention to the fulfillment of sanitary and hygiene requirements, the Consistory continued. This is especially important when it comes to hand-washing and disinfecting opportunities for people at churches or other public spaces belonging to congregations.

"Regular care must be taken, several times a day, if necessary, to ensure that all places and surfaces which are frequently touched by people or items with which they come in immediate contact are clean and, if necessary, disinfected," the Consistory stressed. "It must be safe for everyone at church."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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