ROME – As the number of COVID cases related to the new Omicron variant rise across Europe, Catholic and other Christian leaders have urged their flocks to get vaccinated, saying it is an act of responsibility and care for others.

In a joint statement, Jesuit Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) and Rev. Christian Krieger, President of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), urged faithful to spend the remainder of the Advent season “demonstrating responsibility and care for all.”

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into a second year, European Churches encourage everyone to observe necessary sanitary measures and get vaccinated,” they said, pointing to reports indicating that COVID cases are on the rise in Europe.

“Doctors and paramedics are exhausted, and hospitals face the risk of imminent collapse,” they said, lamenting that in numerous countries across Europe, vaccination rates are far lower than what is needed to slow the spread of the virus, despite the fact that vaccines are available.

Experts in science and medicine must be listened to, they said, voicing their belief that getting vaccinated “is currently the most effective way to counter the pandemic and save human lives.”

“Vaccination offers protection not only to ourselves but also to our brothers and sisters, particularly the more fragile among us. It is thus an act of love and care and also one of responsibility and social justice,” they said.

Across Europe, the number of COVID infections has gone up, with numerous cases of the new Omicron variant popping up, most of which have been detected in the United Kingdom.

As of Dec. 11, the number of Omicron infections in the UK had reached record levels, with 633 cases identified in just 24 hours, which is a 50 percent increase from the previous day, raising the total number of infections with the new variant to 1,898.

Beyond the UK, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), other countries recording numerous Omicron cases include Denmark and Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Belgium, Iceland, Italy, and Finland, among others.

In Italy, some 98 COVID-related deaths were recorded Monday, according to the Italian health ministry, up from 66 the day before. So far, Italy has registered 134,929 coronavirus deaths since the beginning of the outbreak last spring, giving it the second highest death count in Europe and ninth highest in the world. To date, the country has reported 5.24 million total cases.

Yet at nearly a year into the European Union’s vaccination campaign, around one in three Europeans are still unvaccinated, with resistance to government mandates growing.

In their statement, Hollerich and Krieger noted that the decision to get vaccinated is not always easy, and “reasons to be hesitant may be manifold,” including a serious medical condition, or plain doubt.

For these cases, Hollerich and Krieger asked people in these situations to seek clarity over their concerns and make a “well-informed decision” after consulting with competent experts and authorities.

They also pointed to what they said is a troubling spread of false information and unfounded claims about COVID vaccines.

Some of these conspiracies say Bill Gates is planning to microchip the world through the vaccines, while other say they cause infertility. Still others say the 5G networks throughout the world are causing people to catch the coronavirus, while other say COVID-19 was spread by Maine lobsters that were shipped to China.

These theories, Hollerich and Krieger argued, are “instrumentalizing the pandemic by causing fear and polarization at a time when our societies need cohesion, unity and solidarity.”

A lack of trust in governments and institutions has also been pegged as a reason for hesitancy to get vaccinated, with just 19 percent of Europeans including their government among their most trusted sources of accurate and reliable information on COVID vaccines, according to a survey by the European Barometer conducted in May 2021.

Hollerich and Krieger in their statement urged all those with social and political authority, as well as those in the media and members of their respective churches, “to counter any attempts of disinformation.”

“We call on all societal actors to raise the awareness of everyone and encourage them to take responsible actions to protect themselves and others, particularly those who cannot be vaccinated for health or other reasons,” they said.

They urged the European Union and each of its Member States to “fulfill their vaccine-sharing pledges and step-up global efforts towards ensuring an equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all,” especially in countries with fragile health systems.

Quoting a passage from the Book of Isaiah, in which the prophet says, “A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” they insisted that “God sent his son to earth to express his love and care for us.”

“This good news remains very relevant today. Let us give living witness to it, let us show responsibility and care,” they said.

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