The Romanian Orthodox Church, known as a bastion of conservatism, has broken a taboo by embracing the Internet and tending to its flock via cyberspace.
Believers are now invited to send prayers via the Internet, seek their soulmate on Orthodox-only matrimonial websites and watch online the funerals of their loved ones.
AdvertisementSince the dynamic and comparatively young -- at 59 -- Patriarch Daniel became the shepherd of some 19 million Romanian Orthodox believers in 2007, God's word has been increasingly delivered via sermons broadcast live.
The Church has even set up its own media group, Basilica, including a radio and a TV station, a news agency, a newspaper and a "pilgrimage agency", Basilica Travel.
Scores of websites and blogs disseminating Orthodox teachings and facilitating exchanges among believers have also mushroomed, creating what analysts here are calling the "Internet Church".
A sociologist specialising in religions, Mirel Banica said that such websites may raise a few eyebrows but they answer a real need.
"People are busy, many Romanians live abroad and no longer have time to perform all the Orthodox rituals the way their parents used to," he told AFP.
Nearly three million people from this former communist state which joined the EU in 2007 have emigrated over the last few years, looking for better paid jobs in the West.
With Orthodox churches sometimes far away, "they resort to the Internet when it comes to commemorating their dead relatives, for instance," said Banica.
For the sociologist, "the development of the Orthodox blogosphere is religion's answer to the challenges of modern times."
One of the most widely visited such websites, www.crestinortodox.ro -- which had a record 72,000 visitors on Christmas eve -- invites believers to send prayer requests online.
"Romanians abroad will have their name read during religious services and get help in times of crisis," the website reads.
But a list of fees -- one euro ($1.40) per prayer or 24 euros for a one-month subscription to be paid by credit card -- has drawn scathing comments from some clergy and media.
Father Nectarie at the Crasna monastery in northwest Romania defended the practice. "It is a helping hand lent to believers," he told AFP.
"But some people don't understand that modern technology is a useful tool and they seize this opportunity in order to disparage the Orthodox Church."
A monk at the Zemes monastery in the country's northeast, Traian Covalciuc, said similar practices were already underway during the communist era under the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, when believers living at a distance would send by post lists of relatives' names they wanted to be mentioned during religious services.
An "offering" of money was inevitably included in the envelope, though the amount was up to believers with no fixed fees stipulated.
"God knows when you have paid, He does not need a receipt," the grey-bearded monk said with a smile.
Not all clergymen agree, including Cristian, a young priest who preferred not to give his family name. "Sending prayers via the Internet only alienates believers from the Church," he said. "Besides, the priest is not a public servant paid to deliver a prayer."
Other orthodox websites play Cupid and invite believers to put in matrimonial ads, no fees required this time.
"Marriage is the only aim of the ads we are hosting. It is very important that the two spouses should be Christian Orthodox churchgoers," the homepage of www.cetateacrestina.org (the Christian citadel) reads.
And judging by the number of "thank-you" emails posted, the site appears to be a successful matchmaker.
"Thanks to you I have met a girl. After four months of SMS messages, phone calls and e-mails we got married," Sorin B. of Botosani wrote.
On a more somber note, another site, Funerar TV, noted that "tragic events can occur unexpectedly when relatives may be dozens of miles away" so offers Romanians the possibility to "accompany their loved ones on their last journey via Internet".
With prices ranging from 170 to 840 euros, the website "will broadcast live the entire funeral service, from the preparation to the end."
"Internet is not the devil, but we must keep it under control and not let it control us," Rade Radan, a Serbian Orthodox priest serving in Australia, told AFP.
"However, the Church is about gathering people and it is important to keep the connection between believer and priest."