April 17, 2020
Markian Bilynskyj, Vice President - Field Operations
- The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally disrupted preparations for celebrating Easter in Ukraine. The extent of the pandemic's impact on religious life became clear in mid-April following the almost simultaneous death of a parish priest - who had been the first person in the Ternopil oblast to be diagnosed with the infection after regular home visits - and the closure of the Kyiv Cave Monastery following the detection of an initial four cases there.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic the leadership of most of Ukraine's major denominations have observed the quarantine regime laid down by the government for the general population in a March 11 resolution that was amended on April 2. These measures were supplemented by additional guidelines issued by the churches themselves. While the government has not closed church buildings - that would require a state of emergency - instructions from the churches themselves generally prescribe no more than ten people at any service and only two within a church at other times for confession or the lighting of commemorative candles. The kissing of icons is banned. Instructions exist for specific ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and the ministration of last rites in private homes. All of these are common sense measures aiming to minimize personal contact. Ukraine's Muslim community was the first to fully close its places of worship while the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church offered to provide space for the treatment of COVID victims if necessary. But Church leaders have not yet been formally included in local anti-pandemic committees.
President Zelensky has kept a fairly low profile but met individually with the heads of the major Christian churches, except the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). Regarding Easter specifically, in late March his Office announced an "Easter at Home" initiative that has focused primarily, it seems, on promoting the message that major commercial TV channels will be broadcasting Easter liturgies. The Presidential Office initially estimated that approximately 75% of Ukrainians planned to spend Easter at home. Subsequently, a more detailed independent poll revealed that number to have increased to 85% with only 4% planning to attend services and 7% limiting themselves to consecrating the traditional Easter basket.
The blessing of the Easter basket - a central rite - will be performed in a remote manner, or can be done at home by individuals once the appropriate prayers have been recited. The Ukrainian postal service is offering free delivery of the Easter bread/cake (paska) which in some cases will be blessed at the bakery. Special Easter provisions have been made by the churches and local authorities for remote communities. Other Easter traditions have also been altered. The popular visiting of the graves of relatives the week after Easter has been postponed. Indeed, On April 14, Kyiv city announced that all municipal cemeteries will be shut and that mass ceremonies will only be allowed after June 6.
Initial implementation of government instructions by the secular authorities was understandably inconsistent, occasionally leading to local authorities closing churches rather than simply controlling, with the assistance of the police, the number of parishioners inside at any one time. But parishioners have overwhelmingly abided by the new behavioural norms and church attendances have dropped accordingly. There have, however, been some clear and obvious violations at parish level by individual clergy. Social media and Ukrainian news channels have shown clips of priests determined to maintain traditional practices out of a sincere conviction that prayer and contrition provide immunity. Indeed, special prayers have been composed and approved for the pandemic while a prominent former head of one of Ukraine's Orthodox churches declared that the corona virus pandemic was divine retribution for mankind's sins, specifically, same-sex marriage.
Roman Catholic Easter Sunday passed without incident. But the same-day Palm Sunday celebrations of the other Ukrainian Christian churches revealed that a regime based on persuasion and fines has its limits. Violations of, for example, distancing norms led to calls by some local officials for the government to tighten the restrictions on religious practices over the Easter period. There were complaints about the reluctance of the patrol police to intervene and enforce even those measures within their sphere of responsibility. (Polls also show that 80% of respondents were prepared to tolerate stricter measures over the Easter period.)
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) has openly bridled at the imposed restraints. Commencing just before the introduction of the first quarantine measures in mid-March, the head of the Kyiv Cave Monastery, Metropolitan Pavlo - often referred to as 'Pasha (the Russian diminutive form of his name) Mercedes' because of his fondness for the material blessings of a life devoted to the spiritual - publicly proclaimed that his Church would not tolerate the intrusion of secular authorities into church matters. He callously called for his flock to show their defiance of the corona virus by attending church services and greeting each other with the traditional embrace - even at the price of martyrdom (!).
Ironically, three weeks later, the Cave Monastery was closed and on April 13 it was placed under full quarantine by the Kyiv authorities. Over ninety monks had by then been tested positive and three had died. Pavlo himself is being treated at a Kyiv hospital. Rather than draw the appropriate conclusion, the following day, Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine - and in contrast to the repeated appeals by the other major Ukrainian Christian churches that their faithful stay at home - called for his faithful to turn up for Easter Sunday mass regardless.
Exploiting ambiguities in the current restrictions on public gatherings, Onufriy informed his flock that they would be celebrating mass not in the actual churches - which would be a direct violation of quarantine measures - but on adjacent territory. This prompted a swift (and angry) response from some local authorities. For example, in the city of Dnipro, the mayor warned a Moscow Patriarchate parish that he would prevent access to their church by digging up the surrounding sidewalks after social media footage appeared of a liturgy held there on Palm Sunday. On April 15 the mayor delivered on his promise. Admittedly, spokesmen for the Russia-affiliated Church have now issued statements more in line with the guidelines of the other Ukrainian churches. But this has simply served to confuse matters because Pavlo and Onufriy have yet to publicly retract their original messages.