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Religious Strain of Anti-Vax Grows in CEE

Mass vaccination drives in the region face opposition from a growing anti-vaccination movement that is being backed by the most conservative elements in the church.

January 19, 2021

As governments across the world struggle to secure enough COVID-19 vaccines and meet the logistical challenges of mass inoculation, efforts in Central and Eastern Europe are being stymied by anti-vaxxer activists intent on exploiting ingrained prejudices against vaccines and widespread distrust of national health systems and politicians.

These activists, which even include members of the medical profession, invariably sympathise with the anti-globalist, socially ultraconservative international movements, and are now finding that amongst their most influential allies are the most conservative elements of their respective churches.

Anti-vaxxers in Central Europe and the Balkans echo the arguments and fears of anti-vaxxers around the world, including the possible side effects of vaccines that they claim have not been sufficiently tested, and denounce as discriminatory any attempts to impose travel or movement restrictions on those who refuse to be inoculated.

In the region, anti-vaxxers have also put the use of foetal cell lines from abortions – sometimes deliberately misrepresented as foetal cells and tissue – in the manufacture of some of the vaccines at the centre of their objections to inoculation, which has brought in conservative voices from the Orthodox and Catholic churches.

Praying for a cure

A prominent religious figure who has publicly stated he is against the vaccination efforts against COVID-19 is Teodosie Petrescu, Archbishop of Tomis for the Romanian Orthodox Church. 

Petrescu has repeatedly defied COVID-19 government-imposed restrictions on religious events and has said about the vaccine: “I don’t dare encourage anyone to get the vaccine… This is the only vaccine that has not been tested on animals and is being tested directly on humans; accidents have already happened.” 

Petrescu recently declared on primetime news that, “The thing that cures the most is praying, much more than any vaccine.”

Romanian Orthodox worshippers crowd around to touch Bishop Teodosie, shortly after a mass dedicated to Saint Dimitrie Basarabov, the patron saint of Romania’s capital, in front of Patriarchal palace in Bucharest, Wednesday 27 October 2004. Archive photo: EPA/ROBERT GHEMENT

The most prominent Orthodox sect in Romania to make opposition to the vaccine its official position is the Old Calendarist Romanian Orthodox Church, which split from the Romanian Orthodox Church in 1924 over its founders’ refusal to adopt the Gregorian calendar.

“We imperatively refuse this vaccine for religious reasons, but also because it has not been thoroughly scientifically tested,” Archbishop Vlasie of the Old Calendaristic Romanian Orthodox Church said in an official statement on January 8.

Within the Greek Orthodox Church, prominent members who have spoken out against vaccination include the former bishop of Kalavryta, Amvrosios, a highly controversial figure who was forced to resign after being convicted for hate speech last year over a homophobic rant. Amvrosios has claimed that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was created by “dark forces” to push societies into taking a vaccine that includes a “chip which will have the number 666”. 

Another leading church figure in Greece, the bishop of Kythira, has called on Christians to avoid the COVID-19 vaccines as they have been created by “the product of abortions”. This is a reference to the use of foetal cell lines during the process of researching and manufacturing some of the COVID-19 vaccines. Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine uses foetal cell lines, being instead synthetic pharmaceutical products.

This moral issue for those who consider abortion a crime has been raised in Catholic countries, particularly Poland, by civil society groups that are not necessarily against COVID-19 vaccination. In Poland, the influential legal conservative group Ordo Iuris is supporting vaccination, but has requested people do not “forget important ethical questions” posed by the vaccines.

“They are mostly linked to using cells from the bodies of aborted children to produce vaccines,” the group wrote in a statement released in December, contradicting experts who say that the COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any aborted foetal cells.

“Even if these cells were taken from foetuses killed over ten years ago, this type of practice justifies abortion,” the group claimed, adding that “everyone who wants to get the vaccine should have the possibility to use those that were produced in an ethical manner.”

Similar objections have been raised by individual Catholic priests and media associated with the most conservative factions of the Polish Catholic Church, such as Radio Maryja.

Despite the prominence of these voices, neither the official, majority Orthodox churches nor the Catholic hierarchy share this opposition to the COVID-19 vaccines. 

Protestors takes part in the ‘March of Living’ organized by the League of Polish Families (LPR) and the ultra-Catholic Radio Maryja in Warsaw, 28 March 2007. Participants demonstrate for the inclusion in the constitution a provision that life is legally protected since conception. Archive photo: EPA/Tomasz Gzell

For Catholics, there was the hugely symbolic moment on January 14 when both Pope Francis and retired Pope Benedict had their first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Francis has been a staunch advocate of COVID-19 vaccination, with the Vatican’s doctrinal office in December stating it was “morally acceptable” for Catholics to have a vaccine even if it was developed using cell lines from long-ago aborted foetuses.

In Romania, the Orthodox Church has “saluted the good news” over the vaccines, though stopped short of recommending believers get the shot, while high-ranking church figures in neighbouring Bulgaria and Greece have helped dispel suspicions about the vaccines.

Nationalist voices in the anti-vax choir

These anti-vaccination messages are being echoed by nationalist, xenophobic and socially ultraconservative groups across the region, which are often connected to the most hawkish elements of the church. They usually rely on Facebook as their prime channel of communication.

In Croatia, conservative activist John Vice Batarelo, from Croatia’s Vigilare NGO, opposes all vaccines made from, or tested on, what he claims are “murdered unborn children”. Batarelo has declared that it does not matter “when that innocent unborn child was intentionally aborted”, referring to the fact that foetal cell lines descend from cells taken from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s. “The time factor is not important here,” he said.

According to Vigilare, the approved vaccines from manufacturers Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca are “connected with abortion”, which is not backed by the evidence. While a spokesperson for the Oxford Vaccine Group, which is working with AstraZeneca, said in the development on the vaccine the group used HEK-293 cells that were originally cultivated from an aborted foetus in the Netherlands in 1973, neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine uses cell lines that originated in any foetal tissue at any stage of design, development or production.

Kyriakos Velopoulos, leader of the far-right Greek Solution party with close ties to fringe sectors of the Greek Orthodox Church, has championed the anti-vax movement in his country. This Greek politician, accused of facilitating anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric, has refused to get the vaccine, saying he doesn’t want to become a “guinea pig”.

In Poland, two of the most prominent anti-vaxxers are Justyna Socha and Piotr Jawornik, both associated with the organisation “STOP NOP – National Association Knowledge about Vaccines”. They are parliamentary assistants of the Konfederacja politician and MP Grzegorz Braun, who is one of the main proponents of the anti-vax movement on the Polish political scene.

As for Romania, Facebook pages such as For Informed Decisions, Legitimate Defense, No to Mandatory Vaccination or the conservative parent association’s The Parents’ Alliance have tens of thousands of followers and frequently publish articles that question the efficiency and safety of the COVID-19 vaccines as well as the legality of mass vaccination campaigns. They alternate posts and linked articles about the COVID-19 vaccine with denunciations of the dissolution of conservative values, the advancement of “the LGBT lobby’s agenda” or general criticism against pandemic restrictions.

Parliament members belonging to the newly entered extremist party Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) rise placards to protesting against COVID 19 measures at the beginning of the validation vote session for designated Prime Minister Florin Citu (not pictured), in Bucharest, Romania, 23 December 2020. The placards read: ‘REOPEN THE SCHOOLS’. Archive photo: EPA-EFE/ROBERT GHEMENT

Romania’s nationalist party AUR, which got 9 per cent of the vote in the December 6 election, making a shock entry into parliament in its first electoral showing, actively campaigns against COVID-19 restrictions, but not against the vaccines.

The anti-vaxxers’ standard-bearer in the Romanian media is ActiveNews. With over 80,000 followers on Facebook, this online news site is proving the most successful at rallying Romania’s nationalist, conservative and religious right-wing into a single platform.

For all the religious and ultraconservative voices in the anti-vax space, many experts on the phenomenon contacted by BIRN stress that their influence should not be overstated and it is anti-vaxxer health professionals who are seen as the most efficient tool of the movement.

“Personally, I think they [most anti-vaxxers] are a minor problem,” said Snjezana Ivcic, who researches health issues within the Organisation for Workers’ Initiative and Democratisation, BRID. “It is worrying when medical and health experts speak out against vaccination, [because] they have a certain authority and it might be easier for ordinary people to believe them.”

Other anti-vax voices in the region

As well as the religious and far-right influences, freedom from state interference is another prominent theme in CEE anti-vaxxer circles.

One of the leading groups opposing vaccination in Croatia is the Croatian Association of Parents Activists, HURA, founded years before the COVID-19 pandemic, which invokes the right of parents and their children to co-decide on medical treatment and, as such, believes that vaccination should be a recommendation, not an obligation. Like most of these types of organisations, they highlight the risk of vaccination side effects.

As we have seen in other parts of the world, some health care and pharmaceutical professionals are also campaigning against vaccination; needless to say, they are not epidemiologists, virologists or other public health experts.

Serbia’s best known anti-vaxxer is the psychiatrist Jovana Stojkovic, whose movement Živim za Srbiju (I live for Serbia) demands “full control of the competent state institutions over the origin, composition, as well as clinical trials of imported vaccines”, and wants the law that makes vaccination mandatory repealed. She is active on Facebook, but her popularity did not pass the election test, when the coalition she formed with far-right ecologists for the June 2020 legislative elections got less than 1 per cent of the vote.

In Hungary, the most prominent anti-vax activist is a pharmacist called Gyorgy Godeny. He has made a name for himself in the Hungarian media as a former body builder, actor, aspiring politician and YouTuber. Dr Godeny, as he styles himself, regularly writes long posts on his Facebook and website where he argues that COVID-19 does not exist and warns about the dangers of vaccination, especially for elderly people. He has also launched a petition demanding a return to normal life without restrictions, and is regularly invited onto TV and radio to challenge the views of prominent researchers and doctors. The Hungarian government pushed through a law to clamp down on disinformation last year and the police are currently investigating him under this legislation.

Source: Reporting Democracy

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