Police levy fines, shut monastery as Ukraine begins Orthodox Easter under lockdown

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainians geared up to celebrate Orthodox Easter this weekend under the wary eye of authorities who have tightened lockdown measures to fight the spread of the coronavirus and fined people for breaking the rules.

While not closing churches, the government has effectively barred attendance by not allowing services with more than 10 people present, and only allowed people to travel in public places alone or in pairs.

Most church leaders have complied, agreeing to broadcast their services online and on television.

Priests consecrated the traditional Easter breads directly in bakeries and factories before they were sold, to avoid devotees taking them to priests. In villages, Easter baskets were left at garden gates for priests to consecrate.

But police announced criminal proceedings against some rule-breakers, for example against a procession in Sambir in western Ukraine that authorities said violated regulations on social distancing and wearing compulsory masks.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Ukrainians to stay home over Easter, mindful of a potential spike in infections of a disease that has killed 125 people in the country.

One of the contagion hotspots has been a sprawling 1,000-year-old monastery complex in Kiev, where around a hundred people were infected and two died.

The monastery had initially criticized the government’s quarantine measures and urged people to continue going to church. The Kiev authorities have sealed off the complex.

“This whole situation demonstrates that your nationality, gender or religion are not important to coronavirus,” Zelenskiy said, alluding to the monastery. “It demonstrates that you cannot have a careless attitude towards the disease.”

The monastery is the headquarters of the Russian-backed wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church known as the Moscow Patriarchate, which has accused the Kiev government of “threats and blackmail” in trying to stop people going to church.

Its leader, Metropolitan Onuphriy, drew further scrutiny by suggesting that people would gather to celebrate Easter in the streets if they were not doing so in churches.

Archbishop Kliment, spokesman for the church, said by phone that the church was obeying the government’s quarantine rules.

“We try to comply with the requirements and let in no more than 10 people into each temple,” he said.

Asked about Onuphriy’s comments, Kliment said Onuphriy had not called people into the street but observed that they would do so themselves and would need to be handled properly.

“So it’s better to organise it correctly than to put your head in the sand and think that it’s not happening,” he said.

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