Darwin’s St Nicholas parishioners are able to attend church again following a suspension of services that was decided in order “to avoid any further animosity”.
“It was the priest’s decision, and we as a committee accepted it,” President of the Greek Orthodox Community of North Australia (GOCNA) Nick Poniris told Neos Kosmos.
Services resumed on Thursday 25 November, with the church given the official green light by authorities.
An announcement circulated to GOCNA members stated “[…]we are meeting our responsibilities according to the Chief Health Officers (CHO) directions,” and encouraged them to abide by the COVID-safety measures required when attending church.
The suspended service on Sunday 21 November made headlines in mainstream local media, reported as a shock closure for parishioners and attributed to an antivaccination clash involving parish priest Joel Xanthos.
But according to Mr Poniris, members of the parish had been notified of the church closure earlier via email and the events that prompted the service suspension following a public comment by an NT official.
At a press conference on Thursday 18 November, Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker spoke of inquiries made over a service at St Nicholas that was allegedly held in breach of NT’s vaccine mandate.
“We were always in compliance with the CHO Directions and we were disappointed to hear that and that the question was asked by the press,” Mr Poniris said, claiming the Police Commissioner’s response was not informed by facts confirmed by the authorities in charge of COVID-safety assessments.
Requirements including conducting the service with social distancing, having a COVID-safe plan and signage displayed for attendees were being followed though, says the GOCNA President.
“We were going to function as normal, having demonstrated we are in compliance, but Fr Joel wanted to avoid negative press and further animosity, so he asked for the suspension of services until we get a confirmation in writing by the relevant authorities that we are not in breach,” he said.
The church, he added, was given the all-clear by authorities at a meeting on Friday 19 November but a written confirmation would come at late notice to avoid the Sunday 21 November service suspension.
Pictures that circulated from that day showed a handwritten note pinned on the table set up outside the closed church doors, which according to Mr Poniris was penned by a parishioner at their own initiative.
The note read:
“A sad day for Darwin’s Greek Orthodox Community with our church being closed. May our holy saints intercede for us. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on Father Joel.”
Back in September, the priest of the church, Fr Joel Xanthos, had been at the centre of media attention over a recorded sermon where he reportedly spoke out against the use of COVID-19 vaccines.