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Religious leaders in Ukraine call for international assistance as Russian forces mass on border

16 April 2021


A member of the Ukrainian armed forces positioned on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk region, Ukraine, last Friday

A member of the Ukrainian armed forces positioned on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk region, Ukraine, last Friday

CHURCH leaders in Ukraine have urged the international community to ensure a lasting peace in their country, as a Russian military build-up on its eastern border fuelled new fears of a full-scale war.

“Recognising the importance of previously reached ceasefire agreements, we stress the need for the signatories to reaffirm their commitment to declared principles and decisions,” the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations said. The body, formed in 1996, is a grouping of 16 Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical denominations, as well as Jewish and Muslim unions.

“We appeal to representatives of international institutions and the diplomatic corps to show unwavering firmness and commitment to resuming the process towards a diplomatic settlement of the military conflict, and towards a just peace throughout our country within its internationally recognised borders.”

The appeal was issued on Monday, as Ukraine accused Russia of massing 80,000 troops along its border with Crimea. This was annexed by Moscow in 2014, prompting warnings from NATO and Western governments.

It said that ceasefire violations and worsening conditions in the rebel-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions had already caused “irreparable losses” and “deep grief and human suffering”, at a time when many Ukrainians were looking to the Orthodox Easter, on 2 May, as “an opportunity for inner renewal and spiritual consolation”.

“We appeal to all those with authority and competence to stop the firing and shelling to find sufficient strength and courage,” the Council said. “We ask you to show wisdom and resolution, so that solemn Easter songs, rather than gunshots, will echo over our homeland at this time, and sincere Easter greetings be heard as the weapons are silenced.”

Russia began deploying infantry and airborne divisions in late March, triggering counter-preparations in eastern Ukraine, where a war with Russian-backed separatists has left at least 13,200 fighters and civilians dead since April 2014.

Speaking on Tuesday, the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, said that the build-up formed part of “readiness drills”, and had been launched in response to threats from NATO and the United States.

The deployments — the largest since 2014 — were, however, branded “unjustified, unexplained, and deeply concerning” by the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, while the White House said that President Biden had called on Russia to “de-escalate tensions”, in a phone conversation with President Putin.

The military tension coincides with continuing Russian hostility to an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which broke with the Moscow Patriarchate two years ago and is seeking international recognition (News, 29 January).

On Tuesday, a senior official in Ukraine’s SBU security service, Oleksandr Skipalsky, urged tighter surveillance of the country’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church as a “powerful fifth column”.

In a separate peace appeal, the largest Protestant organisation in Ukraine invoked divine protection, quoting Psalms 118 and 119 on God’s help for the afflicted and besieged. “We are seeing a large escalation of military forces near the Ukrainian borders; through prayer, God has given us the right to change and break the plans of the devil, whose desire is to kill and destroy,” the Union of Evangelical Baptist Churches told its 2600 communities and missionary groups.

“Let us ask protection for our country, so the enemy is defeated and shamed, and mercy to live peacefully so God’s plans can be carried in our land.”

In a commentary last week, a senior research fellow of the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Ukraine, Dr Valeriy Kravchenko, said that he feared that the forthcoming Orthodox Easter and 9 May Victory Day in Russia could provide a “convenient moment for provocations” by Russia of Ukraine.

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