As we reported on Wednesday, Romanian Minister of Interior Marcel Vela announced that based on an agreement between his ministry and the Romanian Orthodox Church, the coronavirus lockdown measures will be eased for the duration of the upcoming Orthodox Easter weekend, allowing for the distribution of the Holy Light on Easter night and the blessed bread (Paste) on Friday and Saturday.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox churches have no central governing figure or body, with national churches being fully independent. The Romanian Orthodox Church is by far the most powerful in the country, with the latest, 2011 census showing that 81 percent of the country’s population belongs to it.
But let’s take a look at another country that also defines itself as a secular state guaranteeing religious freedom and the separation of church and state: Serbia, Romania’s southeastern neighbor with a roughly similar ratio of Orthodox Christians: 84.5 percent.
At the same time that Vela announced the easing of restrictions – notably amid protests from his fellow cabinet member, Health Minister Nelu Tătaru – Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced a new curfew that will begin on Friday at 5 p.m. and last until 5 a.m. on Tuesday local time (1500 GMT to 0300 GMT), thus during the Easter weekend for Orthodox Christians.
The constitutional powers of the two countries’ presidents are roughly the same. The current political division of power of the two countries is also quite similar: Just like in Romania, the Serbian Prime Minister belongs to the same party as the President.
But Vela’s decision has prompted Romanian President Klaus Iohannis – instrumental in keeping current Prime Minister Ludovic Orban in power – to make a passionate appeal to the country’s citizens to stay at home despite the Interior Ministry’s unilateral move. Vela’s announcement came just hours after Iohannis extended the rule of emergency in the country.
In some sense, Vela’s decision can even be construed as directly undermining the President’s efforts.
The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (also known by its Hungarian acronym, RMDSZ) has called for Vela’s resignation. In a late-night development, Vela, in the face overwhelming opposition to the agreement, has rescinded part of it Wednesday night.
But in the larger scheme of things, the most poignant aspect of this latest political scandal is that since Orban cannot reprimand Vela without losing face himself, the president and the prime minister are locking horns over a religious holiday when most European leaders are attempting to find a precarious balance between fighting the spread of the disease and rebooting their economies, which have come to a virtual standstill.
According to the latest data, Romania has 7,216 coronavirus cases, about the same as Poland (7,582), which has a population twice as large as Romania’s.