Greek Orthodox church under fire for sharing communion cup, spoon among congregants amid pandemic

As religious leaders bend the rules to comply with government and health officials working to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, some commonly held practices are being called into question.

In Australia, the country's medical association (AMA) said Greek Orthodox churches are putting their believers at risk by using the same spoon for hundreds of congregants to sip wine during communion — but the archdiocese disagrees.

"We believe that no disease or illness can exist in Holy Communion, which we believe is the body and blood of Christ," Reverend Scoutas said.

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A priest offers a faithful the communion during a Sunday Mass outdoors mass celebrated in their parish soccer field, on the second Sunday of Lent, the first one after Italy's government's prevention measures on public gatherings, in Rome, Sunday, March 8, 2020. Italy announced a sweeping quarantine early Sunday for its northern regions, igniting travel chaos as it restricted the movements of a quarter of its population in a bid to halt the new coronavirus' relentless march across Europe. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

A priest offers a faithful the communion during a Sunday Mass outdoors mass celebrated in their parish soccer field, on the second Sunday of Lent, the first one after Italy's government's prevention measures on public gatherings, in Rome, Sunday, March 8, 2020. Italy announced a sweeping quarantine early Sunday for its northern regions, igniting travel chaos as it restricted the movements of a quarter of its population in a bid to halt the new coronavirus' relentless march across Europe. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

While a spokesperson for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia said anyone showing signs of illness should stay home, he explained they believe in the effectiveness of the Holy Communion.

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"But once we decide to go to church, we believe there is absolutely no possibility of contracting (the) disease from the holy cup," he said.

AMA associate professor Julian Rait notes the spoon could spread saliva, and therefore, coronavirus, among congregants.

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"I would doubt very much their faith would provide the protection they believe," Rait told CBS News.

Elsewhere, churches in the United States and abroad have gone online, closing their doors to allow people to practice social distancing. Where services do occur, many churches have stopped greeting times and discontinued physically administering communion and passing offering plates.

More than 6,470 people worldwide have died in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, at least 64 of them in the United States.

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The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.