In a remote monastery in northern Greece, an Orthodox abbot delivers a blunt message to dozens of his maskless worshippers: Covid-19 vaccines are “the mark of the Antichrist”.
Vaccine scepticism is rampant in the country’s north, where clerics and monks play a key role in the lives of their followers, often serving as a personal confessor.
Earlier this month dozens gathered to celebrate the nameday of Abbot Maximos in the monastery outside the village of Milochori, west of the nearest town Ptolemaida.
Sitting down to a simple buffet, the 88-year-old abbot used the occasion to hammer home his anti-vaccine message.
“In the end, only 1,000 people will escape it,” he warned.
To those present, his words carry divine weight.
“Abbot Maximos has been in this monastery for 50 years, he is a holy man,” said Evangelia, a trained geologist in her 60s.
“He has been my confessor for over 40 years and I closely follow his advice. He set me on the path of the Lord,” she told AFP.
Most monasteries are nominally overseen by the powerful Greek Orthodox Church, which was reluctant to encourage the faithful to respect anti-Covid measures at the start of the pandemic.
Though the exact number of formal confessors among the ranks of priests and monks in Greece is not known, there are believed to be more than 1,000.
Chrysostomos Stamoulis, a professor of theology at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, said the role of personal confessor is a long-running tradition favoured by devout Orthodox believers in Greece and the Balkans.
“Confessors are supposed to reveal the will of Jesus Christ,” he said.
In November, a prominent Greek actor starring in Eugene Ionesco’s play “Rhinoceros”, one of Athens’ top performances this season, caused a stir by quitting the leading role to protest a government ban on unvaccinated audience members.
The actor Aris Servetalis has publicly spoken about the importance of his confessor in his life, including his decision to play a miracle-working Greek saint in a 2021 film.
“Without his blessing, I would not have done it,” he said in an interview last year.
Athanassios Gikas, a priest and professor of social theology also teaching at Aristotle University, said the proximity of the Mount Athos monastic enclave — one of Orthodoxy’s most revered sites — increases the appeal of the holy men in northern Greece.
In addition, many northern Greeks are the descendants of Asia Minor refugees, who were traditionally very devout, Gikas added.
A confessor himself, Gikas insisted that spiritual advisors “should not impose their will” on their charges.
“It takes great spiritual maturity to guide someone. Certain people are guilty of crimes and should be sanctioned.”
Professor Stamoulis concurred, saying: “Some confessors have created fundamentalist ideologies.”
Abbot Maximos, who uses a wheelchair, said he has instructed his disciples to “refuse to become a guinea pig” by taking the vaccine.
“I am not afraid of persecution. I am in love with God,” he said.
A monastery aide claimed the abbot’s mistrust of modern medicine was well-founded.
“He was fine recently until he took medication. Now he’s unable to walk,” the aide said.
Out of the 1,700 monks living on Mount Athos, more than 40 have died of Covid. Many are fanatically opposed to the vaccine, and have urged visitors to follow suit.
“I will never bless someone who takes the vaccine,” the abbot of one hardliner monastery with over 100 monks said in an online video earlier this month.
“If this is a democracy, why not let people do as they please?” he asked, accusing the authorities of “investing in fear”.
In the monastery outside Milochori, geologist Evangelia said “none of us here have taken the vaccine.”
“Most of us have fallen ill but we were never afraid. What should we fear, when we are in the house of God?” she added.
But the advice has proved deadly for some in Greece, where the coronavirus has claimed the lives of more than 23,000 people.
Nikos, a 57-year-old in the north’s largest city Thessaloniki, said a couple in his neighbourhood ended up in hospital with Covid after refusing the vaccine at the behest of their confessor.
“The woman died, leaving four children behind,” he said.
“This was the tragic consequence of the confessor’s guidance.”
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