More than 260 million Orthodox Christians celebrated Easter Sunday, with church leaders asking worshippers to stay at home to avoid spreading Covid-19.

Orthodox Christians, the world's third-largest group of Christian believers, this year celebrate Easter a week after Catholics and Protestants because they follow a different calendar.

Last week's Easter celebrations took place in empty churches while Pope Francis live streamed his traditional message from the Vatican as the pandemic that has killed more than 150,000 made massed worship too risky.

Most Orthodox Christians will also skip traditional midnight services, even though Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union where most live have relatively low numbers of confirmed cases of the virus so far.

Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who leads 150 million believers, has urged the faithful to pray at home and not go to church until he gives his blessing.

Priests hold the Holy Fire from Jerusalem before the Orthodox Easter celebrations at International Airport Chisinau, Moldova

Russian President Vladimir Putin is dropping his usual attendance at an Easter service and will go to a chapel in the grounds of his residence outside Moscow.

In Moscow and the surrounding region, where most Russian Covid-19 cases are concentrated, churches will hold services behind closed doors with broadcasts online or on television.

However, churches will remain open in many regions of the country, which has reported around 36,800 cases of coronavirus and more than 300 deaths. 

Church officials have asked worshippers who attend to keep their distance, wear masks and not kiss icons.

In much of the wider Orthodox region, churches will not be open to the public.

The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has announced that services will be closed to the public and broadcast online.

The same decision has been taken in Cyprus, Greece, Serbia and North Macedonia as well as in Egypt, where Orthodox Coptic Christians comprise 10-15 percent of the population.

Jerusalem's Old City is normally packed for Orthodox Easter but was almost deserted at the weekend due to Israel's strict lockdown measures.

 Macedonian orthodox priests light candles from the Holy Fire from Jerusalem 

The annual Holy Fire ceremony took place behind closed doors in the city's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The flame is then taken to Orthodox countries worldwide.

According to tradition, the Holy Sepulchre stands on the site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial.

In Romania, while churches have closed their doors, volunteers and priests will go to people's homes handing out loaves of consecrated bread and sharing the holy flame.

This compromise has angered some people.

"If we can go to a pharmacy to get medicines for our body, why can't we go to church for our spiritual medicine?" asked Monica Georgescu, an Orthodox Christian in her 70s who lives in Bucharest and says she has not missed an Easter service since childhood.

A number of Orthodox churches have opposed the imposition of lockdown measures on their most important holiday.

Orthodox priest blesses people  during Orthodox Easter celebration in Lviv, Ukraine

In Bulgaria the Orthodox Church has insisted services will be open to all, but worshippers will have to wear masks and stand at a minimum distance from each other. 

In Georgia, which has 385 confirmed cases, the government has bowed to pressure from religious authorities and allowed services in the largest churches despite the public lockdown, while no senior officials will attend.

Ukraine has seen a similar divergence of views with President Volodymyr Zelensky urging people to stay at home and linking a surge in infections to last week's Catholic celebrations.

Ukraine's Orthodox Church has encouraged worshippers to gather in the open-air.

It has nonetheless been hard hit by the virus with 93 people infected at its historic Kiev-Pechersk Lavra monastery where three monks have died. 

In ex-Soviet Belarus, a country of nine million with a relatively high number of cases, the situation is reversed, however.

President Alexander Lukashenko chastised other countries for stopping people attending services as he defiantly visited a church outside the capital.

"I don't approve of those who have closed people's way to church. I don't approve of such a policy," Lukashenko said while visiting the church, Belta state news agency reported.

"You know my position: we experience these viruses every year."

The Belarusian leader dropped into the church at a monastery in a village east of Minsk with his teenage son, lit a candle and briefly talked to parishioners.

Lukashenko and his son Nikolai, both in dark suits and no face masks, lit candles watched by monks in black habits and parishioners.

Lukashenko was also handed flowers by small children.

"Whatever has happened in our history no one has been able to close, shut down or ban this holiday," he said, while the monastery he visited was closed for decades by the Soviet authorities.

"I have always come to church and I always will."