By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Several thousand worshippers and clergy, some without face masks, filed steadily into a Belgrade church on Saturday to pay their respects to Patriarch Irinej, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who died aged 90 after contracting COVID-19.
Irinej tested positive for the coronavirus on Nov. 4 and died on Friday, prompting the Serbian government to declare three days of national mourning in the predominantly Orthodox Christian country.
Despite a rise in COVID-19 cases, some of the faithful maintained tradition by kissing the glass-covered casket containing the Patriarch's body, which was dressed in a gold-embroidered robe and an ornate crown.
Most, however, solemnly walked past it and wore protective masks as they paid their respects to Irinej, who became the Church's 45th patriarch a decade ago.
"God protects those who protect themselves," said Tomislav Gajic, 65, a pensioner from Belgrade, wearing a white face mask as he lined up outside the city's St. Sava temple where the Patriarch's body will lay in state until Sunday's funeral.
Like other European countries, Serbia has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, and Predrag Kon, an epidemiologist and a member of the state committee tasked with combating COVID-19, said the Patriarch's funeral "is a great risk".
"That gathering is not acceptable... But that is something no one can ban," Kon told state television.
Before the start of two days of funeral rites, Serbian army guardsmen in blue uniforms, escorted by clergy, carried Irinej's coffin to a catafalque inside the church - one of the largest in the world.
Serbia's government imposed tighter coronavirus controls on Saturday, such as requiring face masks to be worn outside "where distance can not be maintained" from next week.
Authorities have been reluctant, however, to impose strict sanitary restrictions on the powerful Church, which has about 12 million followers, mainly in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia.
Serbia, which has a population of about seven million, has reported 110,351 COVID-19 cases and 1,140 deaths.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo; Editing by)