Metropolitan Amfilohije, Patriarch Irinej, and Bishop Joanakije of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Photos by Wikipedia, CC BY-SA.

The sight of thousands of people waiting to kiss the mortal remains of the Serbian Orthodox Christian bishop Amfilohije Radović in Montenegro caused outrage in the Balkans. Several days later, reported infections of top Serbian religious figures, including Partiarch Irinej, indicate that the lavish funeral could serve as a coronavirus superspreader event.

Metropolitan Amfilohije was one the most powerful men in Montenegro. He died of COVID19 related pneumonia on October 29 and the massive church-organized gathering at his wake and funeral broke all government safety measures.

On Satuday, October 30, mourners came by the thousands in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, to pay respects by kissing parts of his dead body on display in the Serbian Orthodox cathedral. Some of them also brought their children to the small unventilated room packed with priests and nuns who recited litanies disregarding the safety rules.

Translation: Inoculation of Serbs in Montenegro against the coronavirus. #EXCLUSVE …

Like many other clerics from the region, Metropolitan Amfilohije undermined the severity of the pandemic. He was a key figure in organizing the political movement against the former Montenegrin government ahead of August elections, mobilizing the believers of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the country to attend regular protests in the form of church processions. These massive gatherings were in direct violation of WHO guidelines and related anti-pandemic regulations enacted by Montenegro government.

Claims that saint’s remains that heal the virus

Bishop Amfilohije | photo: Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral

During an annual religious event in May, held in Ostrog Monastery in spite of the ban on public gatherings, bishop Amfilohije stated that the pilgrimage prevents the COVID19 disease:

“While waiting for the vaccine to be invented, here’s a vaccine which is in effect right now and has been acting through the centuries. This vaccine functions today also, and I am convinced that with god’s blessing, the relics of Saint Basil of Ostrog which we kiss and circle around can heal even the virus that has conquered the world today,” declared Amfilohije, referring to the earthly remains kept in the monastery.

After he tested positive for the coronavirus on October 6, the 82-year old head of Serbian Church in Montenegro was hospitalized in the Clinical Center of Montenegro. According to the sources quoted by the portal CDM, Metropolitan Amfilohije was treated with the antiviral medication remdesivir, which is alegedly unavailable for other COVID-19 patients in Montenegro.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, 20.851 citizens of Montengro had been infected, and 326 had died from the pandemic so far.

The funeral held November 1, was officiated by the Serbian Patriarch Irinej, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church from Belgrade.

The Director of the Clinical Center of Montengro, Nevenka Pavličić MD, unsuccessfully appealed to the President of the National Coordinative Body for fight against the pandemic to issue an order to close the casket of the Metropolitan Amfilohije, saying that the ritual in which thousands of people kiss his body is “a hotbed of disease.”

Four days after the funeral, the Serbian Orthodox Church issued a joint statement with the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Serbia, announcing that Patriarch Irinej (90), upon his return to Belgrade from the funeral in Podgorica “was admitted to the Military COVID Hospital ‘Karaburmа’, as he tested positive for SARS CoV2 virus during the regular test procedure.”

Back in Montenegro, Amfilohije’s heir apparent, Bishop Joanikije Mićović, who now holds the title of administrator of the Serbian Church in Montenegro also tested positive to COVID19, according to the information service of his Eparchy of Budimlja and Nikšić.

Allegedly, both high-ranking clerics are not suffering severe symptoms.

Media portrayal of deceased Metropolitan Amfilohije

Media in Serbia and pro-Serbian media in the region presented the deceased Amfilohije as a fallen hero and virtual saint.

Both during his lifetime and after his death, such media published articles trying to tie him with alleged “miracles”, such as apparition of St. Basil on a photo behind him, or a clouds forming a cross in the sky during his funeral.

Since the early 1990s, Metropolitan Amfilohije publicly acted as vehement supporter of Serbian nationalism and its wars of conquest in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, openly consorting with war criminals like Željko Ražnjatović Arkan, Vojislav Šešelj and Radovan Karađić.

In numerous statements he expressed disdain for people of Muslim faith, Kosovo independence, and the separate Montenegrin ethnic identity.

In 2007 he also spoke against the Rolling Stones concert in Montenegro, declaring their songs ‘demonic.’

Media also kept reporting on expressions of mourning from Serbian celebrities. For instance, Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic claimed that his grief for Amfilohije made him loose from Italian Lorenzo Sonego in their ATP Vienna quarter-final on October 31.

Different countries in the Balkans region had varied experiences regarding the attitude of the religious institutions towards the pandemic.

With the increase of the death toll, they mostly confirmed to government safety measures and have quieted down the more extreme elements within their ranks who denied COVID19 exists or can affect their community.

Consistency in applying the rule of law also played a part. For instance, while Greek Orthodox Church is considered one of the most powerful institutions in Greece, which unlike in most other democracies is not separated from the state, there was no impunity for the priest who was arrested for violation of lockdown in March.

Media reporting on the spread of COVID19 within the hierarchy of religious institutions in the Balkans predominantly relies on official statements on infections or deaths and rarely ventures into investigative reporting about individual or institutional responsibility for this complex situation.

An aspect of sensationalism includes perpetuating the notions that being a cleric or participating in religious rituals makes people somehow special immune to diseases. For instance, a Macedonian portal decided to spice up such news with the headline “COVID-19 has no mercy for anyone: a Macedonian Orthodox Church priest has passed away.”

Many Orthodox Christian religious leaders from the Balkans, including those from institutions which had officially expressed support for the anti-pandemic measures, have been repeating the claim that believers can’t be infected during the ritual of Holy Communion, when a sip of wine is administrated with a common spoon.

For instance, a high-ranking bishop of Serbian Orthodox Church, Milutin Knežević, the Episcope of Valjevo, declared to his flock on March 15, 2020:

“Holly Communion is a life-giving force. When all of you accept the Eucharist, the youngest priest drinks the remaining wine from the chalice. And nobody ever got infected by anything! As a young hieromonk I used to do that at the time when the people feared Variola Vera. We had been taught by the Holy Fathers that a person can’t get ill, if there’s faith that the body and the blood of Christ can vanquish any disease. Today also, Holly Communion can protect and save us…”

Episcope Milutin (71) died on March 30 in a Belgrade hospital due to consequences of COVID19 infection.

Official figures for COVID19 in Serbia are 55.676 infected and 861 deaths.