THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — A senior clergyman in Greece’s Orthodox Church was buried Monday after dying of COVID-19, reviving a debate over the safety of receiving communion ahead of the Christmas holiday.

Metropolitan Bishop Ioannis of Lagadas, 62, was an outspoken advocate of maintaining communion ceremonies — at which worshipers are given bread and wine with a shared spoon — during the pandemic, arguing that there was no risk of transmission. His stance was backed by other church officials.

The town of Lagadas, outside Greece’s second-largest city of Thessaloniki, is a northern region currently experiencing the highest rate of infection in the country.

Churches across Greece are currently closed as part of a three-week lockdown introduced nationwide on Nov. 7, but are due to reopen ahead of the Christmas holidays.

Worshippers receiving communion celebrate a re-enactment of the Last Supper, the meal Jesus Christ shared with disciples before his arrest and crucifixion, according to The Bible.

The Church’s governing Holy Synod said Monday that it was complying with public safety restrictions, and hit back at critics who have accused the church of acting irresponsibly.

“Certain aspiring leaders of public opinion are insisting in a neurotic manner on concentrating exclusively on Holy Communion,” a statement from the Synod said. “They cite unscientific correlations with the spread of the coronavirus, in defiance of epidemiological evidence.”

Greek health experts have mostly avoided commenting on church practices but have noted that World Health Organization guidelines list saliva as a leading means of contamination.

Christos Giannoulis, a Thessaloniki lawmaker for the left-wing Syriza party, said the conservative government should have sought stronger support from the Church in its public health campaign.

“I do believe places of worship have contributed to the rapid spread of the pandemic though they are certainly not the only one: Add that to overcrowding on public transport, crowding outside schools, and the tragic lack of testing and we are where we are now,” he told the AP.

“If the Church had been the lead advocate for wearing masks, for example, things might have been different now.” ___ Gatopoulos reported from Athens.

___ Follow Kantouris at https://twitter.com/CostasKantouris and Gatopoulos at https://twitter.com/dgatopoulos

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