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With Masks and Gloves, Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Priests Return to Duties

IVANO-FRANKIVSK, Ukraine  — Wearing a white biohazard suit, a face shield and a blue mask over his mouth and nose, the Rev. Yaroslav Rokhman is hard to recognize as a priest when he visits terminally ill patients at a Ukrainian care center.

But his words still bring comfort to the dying.

Rokhman, a clergyman in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, is pleased just to be performing one of a cleric's most heartfelt duties again. As the coronavirus pandemic's grip slowly recedes in Ukraine, priests received clearance on May 22 to resume religious services and to visit the sick and bereaved.

"Patients missed the support and spiritual care. They needed a priest. They needed to pray and talk," he said while attending to patients at a palliative-care facility in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city 450 kilometers (270 miles) west of the capital of Kyiv.

Galina Shamineva, a 34-year-old mother of two with cancer, was heartened to see Rokhman, his intimidating protective gear notwithstanding.

"I feel good — all thanks to you," she said from her bed. ""I really needed to be able to confess and partake in the sacrament."

Rokhman spoke to Shamineva in a soothing way and made the sign of the cross with his gloved hands.

"Sometimes I cry, but I never give up. I'm fighting 'til the last breath," she told him.

In Chernivtsi, one of the Ukrainian cities hit hardest by the virus, the Rev. Vasyl Gasynets has returned to conducting services at his Greek Catholic church, wearing vestments along with a mask while giving Holy Communion. Members of the congregation also were masked as they stood near each other, as did some choir members as they sang.

 "Our church was clean before the pandemic. And it's clean during the pandemic. We respect our people. We want everyone to be healthy," Gasynets said. "We want them to believe that in the house of God, Jesus Christ, Holy Church, everything is clean."

Regulations to prevent the spread of the virus widened a religious fault line in Ukraine. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Greek Catholic Church complied with government restrictions on holding services. But the rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church, resisted.

After the Russia-linked church allowed people to attend Easter services, authorities filed criminal cases against five priests. If convicted, they face prison sentences of up to eight years. At the church's world-renowned Pechersk Monastery in Kyiv, more than 100 clerics were infected with the virus, and at least three died.

Ukrainian authorities reported 393 new confirmed cases on Saturday, down from some 500 new cases a day earlier in May. The country has recorded a total of more than 23,000 confirmed cases and 696 deaths.

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