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Posts tagged ‘Land of the Balkans’

Communion ritual unchanged in Orthodox Church despite virus

May 29, 2020

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — One by one, the children and adults line up for the centuries-old ritual of Holy Communion, trying to keep a proper social distance. The priest dips a spoon into the chalice of bread and wine, which the faithful believe is the body and blood of Christ, and puts it into the mouth of the first person in line.

Then, with a move that would alarm an epidemiologist, he dips the spoon back into the chalice and then into the next person’s mouth. Again and again, through the entire congregation. Contrary to what science says, the Greek Orthodox Church insists it is impossible for any disease — including the coronavirus — to be transmitted through Holy Communion.

“In the holy chalice, it isn’t bread and wine. It is the body and blood of Christ,” said the Rev. Georgios Milkas, a theologian in the northern city of Thessaloniki. “And there is not a shred of suspicion of transmitting this virus, this disease, as in the holy chalice there is the Son and the Word of God.”

This is proven, he said, through “the experience of centuries.” Scientists warn that shared utensils can spread the coronavirus, and they also point to outbreaks linked to religious services around the world.

A communal spoon presents “fairly significant dangers,” said Dr. Nathalie MacDermott, an academic clinical lecturer for Britain’s National Institute for Health Research at King’s College London. “The danger of transmitting any kind of respiratory viral pathogen or even bacterial infections is quite high with the sharing of utensils,” she said. “And for it to be passed among what is probably a relatively large group of people means that all it would take is one person to have coronavirus at the back of their throat, which potentially is in their saliva as well.”

The Holy Synod, the church’s governing body, says any suggestion that illness or disease could be transmitted by Holy Communion is blasphemy, a stance echoed by the Church of Cyprus. “Regarding the issue that is unjustifiably raised from time to time about the supposed dangers, which in these blasphemous views are said to lurk in the life-giving Mystery of Holy Communion, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece expresses its bitterness, deep sorrow and diametrical opposition,” it said in a May 13 circular on social distancing measures in churches.

The Synod “underlines one more time to all those who, either due to ignorance or conscious faithlessness, brutally insult all that is holy and sacred, the dogmas and the sacred rules of our faith, that Holy Communion is ‘the medicine of immortality, antidote to not dying, but to living according to the teachings of Jesus Christ forever.’”

Whether Holy Communion should be changed or suspended for health reasons has become a hot button issue across much of the Christian Orthodox world, with churches generally refusing to bow to pressure from governments and scientists.

Some concessions were made in Russia. In mid-March, the Russian Orthodox Church released instructions on adjusting the sacrament during the pandemic. Priests were told to wear gloves when handing out the bread, to disinfect the spoon and to use disposable cups for the wine.

In Ethiopia, which has the largest Orthodox Christian flock outside Europe, the ritual is unchanged, as it is in the Georgian Orthodox Church. In response to public pressure against using a common spoon, the Georgian church noted the tradition is thousands of years old.

“Throughout these years, there have been many cases of life-threatening infections, during which Orthodox believers did not fear but strived even harder to get Communion through a common chalice and a common spoon,” it said in a statement.

In Greece, a firebrand priest, former Metropolitan Ambrosios, said he had excommunicated the education minister, prime minister and the civil protection deputy minister — the first for suggesting the coronavirus could be transmitted through saliva during Holy Communion, and the other two for closing churches during the lockdown. The Holy Synod did not back him up, however, saying only it had the authority to excommunicate.

Greece imposed a lockdown early on, a move credited with curbing infections. The country has reported 175 deaths and 2,900 confirmed cases. But many of the faithful chafed under the lockdown that closed places of worship for all religions for about two months. It ran through Easter, the most important religious holiday for Christians, and the inability to attend services weighed heavily on many.

When it was lifted May 17, thousands flocked to church. “The issue of Holy Communion in particular is the only red line of the church and of the faithful in our souls,” said 19-year-old Michalis Gkolemis, attending services in Thessaloniki. “We don’t say that Holy Communion is the cure for all diseases, from the flu, for example, but we say that you cannot get sick by receiving Communion. You can’t catch a virus, something which isn’t proven scientifically but exists through experience.”

After ordering churches closed, the government has been more circumspect and has avoided the sensitive issue of Holy Communion. The limited spread of the virus also has reduced the risk of a renewed outbreak, at least for now.

For scientists, concern is tempered by knowing that opposing the powerful Orthodox Church, with a majority of Greeks as believers, could be counterproductive. “This is a matter of public health concern,” said Dr. Gkikas Magiorkinis, assistant professor of hygiene and epidemiology at the University of Athens. “As an epidemiologist, I would like to be able to reduce the risk of transmission.”

But changing the minds of the faithful is “very difficult,” he said. “It’s a matter that can only be solved through discussion, and theological discussion rather than scientific discussion. Scientific discussion never helped, and it might have even worse results.”

Discussions with the church were always open, said Magiorkinis, who also advises the government on the virus. “Only the church can provide a solution,” he said. —- Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki. Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow; Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Sophiko Megrelidze in Tiblisi, Georgia; and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed.

Serbia opposition stage curfew protest against government

April 30, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A group of Serbian opposition leaders on Thursday staged a protest during an evening curfew to voice their criticism of the populist government’s measures against the new coronavirus.

Also Thursday, thousands banged pots and blew whistles from their windows and balconies, even as authorities eased a previously announced 83-hour curfew planned for the upcoming weekend. Serbia’s populist government in mid-March introduced some of the harshest measures in Europe, imposing a state of emergency, banning people over 65 years old from leaving their homes and imposing daily and weekend curfews.

Government critics have insisted that the authorities of autocratic President Aleksandar Vucic have used the state of emergency to curb democracy and media freedoms. Vucic has denied this. Leaders of several opposition parties on Thursday gathered at the start of the curfew at 6 p.m., holding speeches outside the Serbian parliament building in Belgrade. They wore masks but didn’t fully respect social-distancing measures.

No opposition supporters were invited to the protests, but some supporters of the government showed up, shouting at the opposition leaders. No major incidents were reported. The curfew initially was meant to last until Monday morning to prevent people from socializing during the brief May Day holiday, but the government earlier on Thursday shortened the ban following public pressure.

Fueling tensions, pro-government protesters and apparent soccer hooligans on Wednesday lit flares in support of Vucic on top of several buildings in the new part of town, drawing sharp public criticism.

Serbia has reported 9,009 infections while 179 people have died. The Balkan country has started easing the measures, but experts have warned that the situation is still volatile.

US opposes Kosovo’s ‘new barriers’ to Serbian goods

April 01, 2020

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — The decision of Kosovo’s government to phase out the country’s 100% tariff on imports from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina starting Wednesday did not ease international pressure on the tiny Western Balkans country and sparked more domestic tensions.

Although the United States and the European Union had pushed for lifting the import taxes, Prime Minister Albin Kurti announced early Wednesday that his caretaker Cabinet would instead require goods from Serbia to be certified for quality, a mandate already in place for Kosovar products shipped to Serbia.

Marko Djuric, head of Serbia’s office for Kosovo, rejected Kurti’s move, saying “the situation did not deescalate or return to the previous state when uncivilized taxes were introduced.” Kosovo imposed the punitive tariffs in November 2018 over Serbian efforts to block Kosovo from joining international organizations. The dispute led to the suspension of European Union-mediated talks to normalize ties between Pristina and Belgrade.

Most Serb goods stopped arriving in Kosovo after the import taxes were introduced, except for products that were mainly smuggled into Kosovo’s Serb-dominated Mitrovica. Annual trade between Serbia and Kosovo was valued at about 400 million euros ($440 million) before the tariffs were adopted, and inflation in Kosovo rose to about 3% in 2019 after the import taxes took effect compared to 1.1% the previous year.

Kosovo was formerly a part of Serbia and won independence after a 1999 NATO bombing campaign that ended a bloody Serb crackdown on an armed uprising by members of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority. Serbia refuses to accept Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.

Since the start of the Pristina-Belgrade talks in 2011, 33 deals have been signed to ensure the country’s recognition each other in areas such as education and professional degrees. Kosovo claims Serbia has not fulfilled its side of the agreements. Kosovo recognizes diplomas from Serbian universities, but Serbia does not accept the degrees of Kosovar university graduates. It’s the same with drivers’ licenses.

Kurti said the government would monitor whether Serbia moves toward reciprocity until June 15 and if not, the tariffs will be restored. The junior partner in Kurti’s coalition government, the Democratic League of Kosovo, or LDK, initiated a successful parliamentary vote of no-confidence vote in his Cabinet last week. His government now is acting in a caretaker capacity.

The motion came after an LDK minister was fired for not supporting the restrictions on movement the government imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The LDK also wanted Kurti to fully revoke the 100% tariff and not damage ties with the Kosovo’s most important ally, the United States.

The United States argued that Kurti’s actions would strangle Kosovo’s economy. “We remain opposed to the latest move to implement reciprocal measures on the movement of goods from Serbia.” the U.S.Embassy in Kosovo said in a statement Wednesday.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, hailed Kosovo’s move as “an important decision.”

Associated Press witers Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade.

EU chair Croatia votes in tight presidential runoff

January 05, 2020

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Voters in Croatia on Sunday cast ballots to choose a new president in a fiercely contested runoff race, with a liberal opposition candidate challenging the conservative incumbent while the country presides over the European Union during a crucial period.

Croatia took over the EU’s rotating presidency on Jan. 1. for the first time since joining the bloc in 2013. This means that the EU’s newest member state will be tasked with overseeing Britain’s divorce from the union on Jan. 31 and the start of post-Brexit talks.

Sunday’s runoff presidential vote is expected to be a very tight and unpredictable race. It’s being held because none of the candidates won more than half of the votes in the first round on Dec. 22. Current President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic is running for a second term, challenged by leftist former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic.

Milanovic won slightly more votes than Grabar Kitarovic in the first round but analysts have warned there is no clear favorite in the runoff and that each vote counts. There are 3.8 million voters in Croatia, a country of 4.2 million that is also a member of NATO.

The two candidates represent the two main political options in Croatia: Grabar Kitarovic is backed by the governing, conservative Croatian Democratic Union, a dominating political force since the country split from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, while Milanovic enjoys support from the leftist Social Democrats and their liberal allies.

Even though the presidency is largely ceremonial in Croatia, Sunday’s election is important as a test ahead of parliamentary elections expected later this year. Milanovic’s victory over Grabar Kitarovic would rattle the conservative government during the crucial EU presidency and weaken its grip on power in an election year.

While starting out stronger, support for Grabar Kitarovic had been slashed following a series of gaffes in the election campaign. The 51-year-old had a career in diplomacy and in NATO before becoming Croatia’s first female president in 2015. Going into the runoff vote, Grabar Kitarovic evoked the Croatian unity during the 1991-95 war in a bid to attract far-right votes to her side.

The 53-year-old Milanovic is leading the struggling liberals’ bid to regain clout in the predominantly right-leaning nation. Prone to populist outbursts while prime minister, Milanovic lost popularity after the ouster of his government in 2016. He now says he has learned from the experience and matured. Milanovic has urged the voters to give him a chance to surprise them.

Though a member of the EU, Croatia is still coping with graft and economic woes, partly because of the consequences of the 1991-95 conflict that erupted because of Croatia’s decision to leave the Serb-led Yugoslav federation. The Catholic Church plays an important role in the society

Croatia’s presidential contest heads to Jan. 5 runoff vote

December 23, 2019

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatia’s conservative president will face a liberal former prime minister in a runoff election early next month after no candidate won an outright majority in a first round of voting Sunday, near-complete results showed.

The vote was held just days before Croatia takes over the European Union’s presidency for the first time. The governing conservatives are hoping to to keep their grip on power ahead of assuming the EU chairmanship.

Left-wing former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic led the field with nearly 30% of the votes in preliminary returns. President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic had almost 27%, the state election authorities said after counting almost all ballots.

Right-wing singer Miroslav Skoro was in third place with around 24%. Some 3.8 million voters in the EU’s newest member country chose from among 11 candidates in Sunday’s election, but only the top three finishers had been considered serious contenders.

Milanovic and Grabar Kitarovic now will face each other in a second round of voting Jan. 5. Although the incumbent finished second in the first round, analysts said Grabar Kitarovic could be considered a favorite in the runoff because other right-leaning challengers would no longer be in contention.

Addressing supporters, Grabar Kitarovic called for all those on the right to unite behind her candidacy in the second round. She described the first round as a “10 on 1 battle.” “Unlike Mr. Milanovic, I had a tough fellow-candidate at my political specter,” Grabar Kitarovic said. “Now, we must all gather together and go for a victory!”

Milanovic, too, said he can win and called for a “civilized civic match” and not a battle, referring to traditionally deep divisions in Crotia between the political left and right. “We are going to the second round, not a war,” he said. “Let the better one of us win and I believe I am better.”

Croatia’s presidency is largely ceremonial. The office holder formally commands the army and represents the country abroad. But retaining the post is important for the ruling Croatian Democratic Union party, known as HDZ, as Croatia prepares for its six-month term in the EU presidency. The job will include overseeing Britain’s departure from the bloc, expected to take place Jan. 31, and the start of post-Brexit trade talks.

Grabar Kitarovic started off her campaign looking strong but her position weakened after a series of gaffes. The 51-year-old incumbent is known for flirting with the extreme right while seeking also to portray herself as a peoples’ president.

Milanovic promised during the campaign to turn Croatia into a “normal,” tolerant country. Although Croatia has recovered since the devastating 1991-95 war that followed the breakup of former Yugoslavia, it still is one of the poorest nations in the EU and corruption is believed to be widespread.

The nation of 4.2 million people is best known for its stunning Adriatic Sea coast, which includes over 1,000 islands and picturesque coastal towns such as the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik. Critics blasted the government for setting the election date three days before Christmas, a time when many people travel abroad. The governing HDZ party, they said, counted on the support from Croats who live abroad and normally flock home for the holidays.

Analysts said the strong showing by the right-wing Skoro party signaled that the governing HDZ had lost some support among party followers ahead of a parliamentary election set for next year.

Croats pick president in tight test for ruling conservatives

December 22, 2019

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Voters in Croatia cast ballots Sunday in a tight presidential election, with the ruling conservatives seeking to keep their grip on power days before the country takes over the European Union’s rotating presidency for the first time.

Some 3.8 million voters in the EU’s newest member are picking among 11 candidates, but only three are considered to be contenders in the vote held on rainy day during Christmas holiday season. Conservative incumbent Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic is running for a second term, challenged by leftist former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and right-wing singer Miroslav Skoro.

Although the post is largely ceremonial in Croatia — the president formally commands the army and represents the country abroad — keeping the presidency is important for the ruling Croatian Democratic Union party as its government is set to assume the EU chairmanship on Jan. 1. That job will include overseeing Britain’s departure from the bloc, expected on Jan. 31, and the start of post-Brexit trade talks.

Analysts predict that a presidential runoff vote will have to be held in two weeks as no candidate is expected to win an outright majority. Grabar Kitarovic started off stronger but her position has weakened after a series of gaffes during the campaign. She is still believed to have a slight lead going into the election, followed closely by Milanovic. Skoro is trailing in third.

“We are deciding in which direction Croatia will go,” Grabar Kitarovic said upon voting in Zagreb, the capital. The 51-year-old incumbent is known for flirting with the extreme right while seeking also to portray herself as a peoples’ president. Milanovic during campaign promised to turn Croatia into a “normal” tolerant country, while Skoro played an anti-establishment, nationalist card.

Although Croatia has recovered since the devastating 1991-95 war that followed the breakup of former Yugoslavia, it still is one of the poorest nations in the EU and corruption is believed to be widespread. The nation of 4.2 million people is best known for its stunning Adriatic Sea coast, which includes over 1,000 islands and picturesque coastal towns such as the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik.

Critics have blasted the government for setting the election date three days before Christmas, a time when many people travel abroad. The ruling HDZ party, they said, counts on the support from Croats who live abroad and normally flock home for the holidays.

After voting in Zagreb, Milanovic predicted there would be a runoff. “We have done all we could, I have done my best,” he said. “People could see that and now it is up to them to decide.” Skoro urged citizens not to stay at home because of the rain.

“The voters decide today about the future of our country,” he said. “Changes have to happen and people must come out to vote despite bad weather.”

Greece, Israel, Cyprus sign deal for EastMed gas pipeline

January 02, 2020

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece, Israel and Cyprus signed a deal Thursday to build an undersea pipeline to carry gas from new offshore deposits in the southeastern Mediterranean to continental Europe. The 1,900-kilometer (1,300-mile) EastMed pipeline is intended to provide an alternative gas source for energy-hungry Europe, which is largely dependent on supplies from Russia and the Caucasus region.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who attended the signing ceremony with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, said the pipeline will offer Europe “better flexibility and independence in its energy sources.”

The pipeline would run from Israel’s Levantine Basin offshore gas reserves to Cyprus, the Greek island of Crete and the Greek mainland. An overland pipeline to northwestern Greece and another planned undersea pipeline would carry the gas to Italy.

The project could also accommodate future gas finds in waters off Cyprus and Greece, where exploration is under way. The project, with a rough budget of $6 billion, is expected to satisfy about 10% of the European Union’s natural gas needs. But it is fraught with political and logistical complexities.

The race to claim offshore energy deposits in the southern Mediterranean has created new tensions between Greece and Cyprus, on one side, and historic rival Turkey. Ankara has raised the stakes with recent moves to explore waters controlled by the two EU member countries. Cyprus and Greece are particularly disturbed because Turkey sent warship-escorted drill ships into waters where Cyprus has exclusive economic rights.

Cyprus’ Anastasiades said the pipeline affirms that Greece and Cyprus have sovereign rights in waters assigned to them under international law. “This cooperation that we have developed … isn’t directed against any third country,” he said. “On the contrary, whichever country wishes is welcome to join, on the understanding of course that it adopts the basic principles of international law and fully respects the sovereign rights and the territorial integrity of independent states.”

Alluding to Turkey’s stance, Anastasiades said cooperation is the only approach in an unstable region instead of embarking on a course of “self-isolation.” Netanyahu said Israel is set to become a “powerhouse in terms of energy” with its offshore gas reserves. He added that the three countries have established ”an alliance of great importance” that will bolster regional stability.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz has said the EastMed pipeline would take up to seven years to build and that its advantages include being less vulnerable to sabotage and not crossing many national borders to reach markets.

Cyprus is divided into a Greek Cypriot south, where the island nation’s internationally recognized government is located, and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north backed by Turkey. The split followed a 1974 Turkish invasion after an aborted coup aiming to bring Cyprus under Greek rule.

Turkey doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a state and claims much of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone as falling within its own continental shelf. Turkey is also laying claim to large tracts under Greek control in the Aegean Sea and off Crete. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said no project can proceed without his country’s consent following a maritime border agreement that Ankara signed with the Libya’s Tripoli-based government.

The Cypriot government has licensed Italian energy company Eni, France’s Total, ExxonMobil and Texas-based Noble Energy to carry out exploratory hydrocarbons drilling in the country’s offshore economic zone.

Hadjicostis contributed from Nicosia, Cyprus.

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