In Liepāja, suspicions among members of the public that restrictions on gatherings were not being obeyed at St. Anna's Lutheran Church intensified during the Easter holidays. The local newspaper "Kurzemes Vārds" received a video that shows that about 45 people leaving the church under the cover of darkness, with five more seen in the bright windows.
Madara Šeršņova, a representative of the Kurzeme regional department of the State Police, told Latvian Radio that the State Police has not received any calls to St. Anna's church. However the local Municipal Police did send officers on the Saturday evening of April 11, after receiving information about a potential illegal gathering at the church.
Municipal Police representative Kaspars Vārpiņš said: “At 21.25, then at 21.42 we inspected the specific church, but the gate was closed there... we inspected two more churches, and the gates were closed there as well... We could not verify the situation inside the church. We have no right to break down doors of force entry."
Pastor Jānis Bitāns serves in the parish of St. Anna of Liepāja as well as several other churches in the area. Bitāns admitted to the Liepāja newspaper "Kurzemes Vārds" that services were held at Easter, but that the church door was kept locked so that there would not be too many in the congregation. Worshippers kept at a distance of more than two meters from each other, he told the newspaper.
The pastor also confirmed this to Latvian Radio: “Yes, there have been services," he said, adding by way of mitigation "We closed that little circle. At Easter, the limit we stick to is 25, at most.”
Bitāns also admitted that he knew gathering in numbers is against emergency regulations which stipulate that no more than two people can meet in public at the moment. However, he attempted to justify his actions by means of drawing a distinction between an organized service to which people were invited and the supposedly spontaneous and independent gathering of individuals in one place at one time.
"Gathering, yes [is forbidden]. But understand one thing - the church is actually open, no person is expelled when he enters," said Bitāns.
Connections to a higher power
According to Latvian Radio, Bītans' confidence that his church enjoys special protection from the ravages of coronavirus may not only be due to his continued devotions.
St. Anna's Lutheran Church is the oldest church in Liepāja, and many Liepāja residents also call it the most prestigious church. Members of the council, police officers, lawyers, members of the local intelligentsia and other well-known professional people in the city, fill its benches. According to the church's website, there are 431 members registered in the church, and about 250-300 people attend services every Sunday.
Liepāja mayor Jānis Vilnītis (Latvia's Regional Alliance party) is among the regular worshippers and was among the Easter congregants.
Mayor Vilnītis refused to talk to Latvian Radio about the matter, concluding a short correspondence with a telephone message: "My prayers to God are private, praying for the people of Liepāja, Liepāja and the country during this pandemic."
However, Vilnītis spoke to the newspaper "Kurzemes Vārds", initially admitting that there were about 50 churchgoers at the Easter service. The mayor quoted the Bible as saying that evil departs from fasting and prayer, though neither fasting nor prayer are recognized among epidemiologists as effective means of countering the spread of COVID-19, whereas not gathering in groups demonstrably is effective.
Vilnītis told the newspaper he believed all regulations had been followed, adding: "I don't think we should make a fuss about this now, or pick it up as a story worthy of the yellow press."
The emergency regulations which the mayor is responsible for helping to implement are quite clear on the matter saying: "any public events, as well as meetings, processions and pickets are banned. Indoor sports activities and religious activities to be carried out when meeting are also prohibited."
Meanwhile the pastor who led the Easter get-togethers has shown little Christian good will to the "Kurzemes Vārds" newspaper which originally broke this important public-interest story in a city where 19 cases of COVID-19 had been recorded by April 16.
"The pastor was very angry. The accusation was that we were carrying out some sort of order, splitting society, doing harm ... Maybe it was something close to a threat. It is unfortunate that people who are to some extent the leaders of society do not understand their actions before the law and society,” said journalist Nora Driķe.
Similarly mayor Vilnītis asked if the newspaper was engaged in an attempt to slander him, according to the newspaper's website, and expressed dissatisfaction that it had used his own words about how many people attended the easter services. On Tuesday he said "I guess maybe 50, maybe a slightly different number, somewhere plus or minus around there," and yet by Wednesday, his memory appeared to be engaged in a Dutch auction with itself and he said: "Maybe I was wrong, maybe there were 30, maybe 28."
Whether or not a thunderbolt strikes the editorial offices of the regional newspaper or even the headquarters of Latvian Radio remains to be seen. In the meantime men of God and public officials alike should follow the rules recommended by public health experts as so far the coronavirus has shown little preference for one religion, ritual, creed, denomination or congregation over another.
The maximum fine for an organization such as a church congregation for flouting emergency laws is 5,000 euros and for individuals 2,000 euros.