The spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians around the world has ordered churches to halt services and rites until the end of March. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I asked parishioners to stay home for their own safety and the safety of others.

"This trial, too, shall pass," the patriarch said in a televised statement. "The clouds will clear, and the Sun of Righteousness will eliminate the deadly effect of the virus. But our lives will have changed forever."

Churches will remain open only for private prayers. Monasteries are allowed to keep holding services for monks but religious visitors won't be permitted entry.

The halt in church services comes during the run-up to Eastern Orthodox Easter on April 19, the most important time of the year for the Orthodox Christian church.

The church resisted scaling back services for weeks, even as the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic and insisted on social distancing to prevent its rapid spread. Epidemiologists raised the alarm about church rituals such as communion, in which a church priest dips a shared spoon into a chalice of blessed wine and give it to parishioners. COVID-19 can spread through saliva. Church faithful tend to be elderly so they're also the most vulnerable.

In Greece, where the church is especially powerful politically, the church council insisted until earlier this week that "faithful of all ages know that coming to receive the holy communion, even in the middle of a pandemic, is... a potent manifestation of love."

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis gave a televised address on March 11 telling Greeks to "listen to scientists." A few days later, the government suspended services in all churches of any denomination in the country until at least the end of this month.

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