March 21, 2020 / 1:46 PM / 18 days ago

Bulgarian Orthodox Church tells faithful to pray at home to curb coronavirus

SOFIA, March 21 (Reuters) - Bulgaria’s main Orthodox Church urged Christians on Saturday to stay away from churches and pray at home as the Balkan country tightens restrictive measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Bulgaria banned access to parks and playgrounds as well as non-essential travel between major cities in the country of 7 million people on Friday after closing schools, bars and restaurants to ensure social distancing.

The parliament also granted the army the right to help curb movement of people in large groups and allowed the authorities to use mobile operators’ traffic data to track those put under quarantine.

As of Saturday, the country had 142 cases, with three deaths.

The Orthodox Church, which was reluctant to stop church services a week ago, now urged Christians to observe the restrictions while the country’s state of emergency lasts.

“This is not a refusal of worship, but an internal sacrifice made to keep the healthy and the other worshippers,” Metropolitan Cyprian of Stara Zagora, a senior Church leader, said in a televised address.

“Show humble wisdom and stay at home. We, the Christ’s shepherds, will pray for you and your families from the Lord’s home,” he said.

About 75% of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians, although few see church-going as central to their lives.

Churches across the country will stay open for people who have an urgent need to visit, Metropolitan Cyprian said. But he called on the faithful to keep a distance from others and not to touch any surfaces inside.

Churches are being regularly disinfected.

The Orthodox Church in neighbouring Greece has also decided to keep churches open for individual prayers.

In devoutly Catholic Poland, the government has limited gatherings to 50 people or less, effectively curtailing many Masses. (Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova Editing by Frances Kerry)

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