Ukraine wary of Russian aid offer for quarantined Kiev monastery

Anger over war deepened by church's reluctance to follow lockdown rules

A Ukrainian Orthodox priest: The Moscow Patriarchate angered Ukraine’s government by failing to halt all public services over the Easter period. Photograph:  Genya Savilov / AFP

A Ukrainian Orthodox priest: The Moscow Patriarchate angered Ukraine’s government by failing to halt all public services over the Easter period. Photograph: Genya Savilov / AFP

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A Russian request to send aid to a historic Kiev monastery that is under coronavirus quarantine has drawn wary and angry responses in Ukraine, where religious affairs are entwined with the six-year conflict between the two states.

The Kiev authorities have sealed off the Pechersk Lavra monastery, founded in the 11th century, where up to 200 monks and students have caught Covid-19 and three have died from the virus.

At least two other monasteries in Kiev and one in western Ukraine have been quarantined after becoming “hotspots” for infection in the country, which has registered 8,617 coronavirus cases, of which 209 have proved fatal.

Those monasteries are run by the Moscow Patriarchate, an arm of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose priests have backed Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its proxy war in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 14,000 people. Ukraine last year formed a new Orthodox church, independent of Moscow.

The Moscow Patriarchate angered Ukraine’s government by failing to halt all public services over the Easter period, while the country’s other main confessions largely heeded calls to close their doors; officials say about 130,000 people attended Orthodox Easter Mass, fuelling fears of a surge in Covid-19 infections.

Russian human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova has written to Ukrainian counterpart Lyudmyla Denisova to request help with the delivery of “Easter aid from Russian believers” to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery.

“More than two tonnes of medicines, disinfectants and other items essential for fighting the spread of the coronavirus infection have been collected,” Ms Moskalkova said.

Ms Denisova said it was not in her remit to organise such deliveries and that she had passed on Russia’s request to the ministry of social policy in Kiev.

‘Wolf in sheep’s clothing’

Ukrainians are sceptical of offers from Moscow after witnessing the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas region, where militia-held areas regularly admit convoys of trucks carrying what Russia calls humanitarian aid, but which Kiev believes bring arms and ammunition to separatist forces.

Iryna Friz, a deputy from the European Solidarity party of former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, described Russia’s offer of aid to the Kiev monastery as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” intended to discredit and undermine Ukraine.

“Today, ‘humanitarian convoys’ from the Kremlin can only be sent to Ukrainian territory that is temporarily not under government control and is occupied by [Vladimir] Putin,” she said in reference to Russia’s president.

“To allow these ‘humanitarian’ cargoes in any form to reach Kiev or other cities would be a direct betrayal of the national interests of the state.”

Ms Friz said she believed Russia’s military and intelligence services would accompany any aid convoy to Ukraine, citing Moscow’s recent high-profile delivery of supplies and personnel to Italy to help it fight Covid-19.

The La Stampa newspaper has reported that most of the aid was “useless” and that the operation – which saw a convoy of military trucks flying Russian flags drive through Italy – was a Kremlin public relations stunt and probably also cover for a spying mission. Moscow has angrily denied those claims.

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