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Ukrainians hear note of hope as fighting goes on

01 April 2022

Peace talks held in Istanbul this week but shelling takes its toll

The Assumption Cathedral reflected in the broken window of a café damaged during shelling of central Kharkiv, as Russian attacks continue

The Assumption Cathedral reflected in the broken window of a café damaged during shelling of central Kharkiv, as Russian attacks continue

CHURCH leaders in Ukraine have begun talking more convincingly about victory over Russian forces.

The Primate of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), told a Kyiv congregation on Sunday: “Although a heavy cross has fallen upon us, we must bear it with dignity, following Christ until we achieve victory — a spiritual victory over the evil brought to our homeland by the Russian aggressor. . .

“By the power of God’s truth and mercy, by the power of our people’s love, sacrifice, and faith, Ukraine — still wounded, tortured, and crucified by its enemies — will be resurrected.”

The Metropolitan preached as Russian forces continued shelling the capital, as well as Kharkiv, Sumy, Mykolaiv, Mariupol, and other cities, despite claims by Moscow last week that it was refocusing its offensive on eastern Ukraine.

He asked: “Have we, as a state and people, done something against Russia which merits this cruelty and murder — did we harbour evil plans against our neighbours, or did we just want to live in our own home as free people?”

He said that soldiers and civilians in hundreds of other towns and villages were still “suffering as martyrs”, despite doing nothing “evil or worthy of punishment”, but said that the Christian faith would give embattled citizens the strength to “take up the common Cross of Ukraine”.

The leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk, said that Russia was waging war “against the entire Ukrainian people”, who were now “united in the goal of defeating the enemy pounding Ukrainian soil”.

Anyone “respecting God’s Commandments” should take Ukraine’s side rather than remaining neutral, he said, as they witnessed Russian forces “looting, robbing, and starving ordinary people”, and “humiliating and raping Ukrainian women in front of their children”.

“We used to talk so much about unity as if it were some kind of dream, and today this dream has become a reality — everyone feels the mandate of his own conscience, to stand, endure, and be victorious,” Archbishop Shevchuk said on Monday.

“When we refer to our country, we mean all of the inhabitants of Ukraine, regardless of national, ethnic, church, or religious affiliation, even if they live beyond its borders. In this national unity, we sense a foretaste of victory.”

Ukrainian and Russian delegations held peace talks in Istanbul this week, as the Kyiv government indicated that it could accept a future neutrality, without joining NATO or hosting military bases, in return for international security guarantees.

On Tuesday, Russia announced that it would “drastically reduce combat operations” around Kyiv and Chernihiv, north-west of the capital, but pressed on with attacks elsewhere, targeting Mykolaiv, a Black Sea port of 500,000 people.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Culture Ministry said that 60 mostly Orthodox churches had been wrecked in eight separate regions by last weekend, along with an undisclosed tally of schools and other church buildings.

It said that the Evangelical Baptist Christ the Saviour Church in Mariupol had recently been completely destroyed by Russian shelling, along with an Evangelical Baptist Bible seminary at Irpen, which was hit by multiple mortars while more than a hundred people sheltered in its basement.

The Greek Catholic Church said that its priests were now holding regular services for Christians hiding in the Kyiv metro, while Orthodox monks and theology students were reported to have given blood for the city’s hospitals.

During a liturgy on Sunday in Kyiv, the Primate of Ukraine’s Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), led prayers for “peace on Ukrainian soil and deliverance from the enemy”, also asking Christ to “guide the authorities, strengthen the courage of soldiers, release prisoners, heal the sick, and shelter those deprived of homes”.

In statements this week, Metropolitan Onufriy’s Church said that it had barricaded Orthodox monuments against blast damage, including Kyiv statues of the medieval Prince Vladimir, and saints Cyril and Methodius, but confirmed that numerous historic Orthodox churches had already been destroyed, including Mariupol’s new hilltop Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, which was devastated by a Russian bomb on 25 March.

Among recent casualties, the Church said that the Rector of St Nicholas’s, Irpen, Archpriest Volodymyr Bormashev, had died at the weekend from bomb injuries, while Bishop Ambrose (Skobiola) of Volnovakha, Vicar-Bishop of Donetsk diocese, had been badly wounded when the Mykola-Vasyliv monastery was shelled near Donetsk.

In his own Sunday sermon, however, preached in the Khoroshevo suburb of Moscow, Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill made no reference to Ukraine, urging followers instead to look forward to the joy of Easter with its promise of “salvation, redemption, and liberation”.

In a letter the same day to the commander of Russia’s National Guard, General Viktor Zolotov, the Patriarch praised Rosgvardiya servicemen, who are fighting in Ukraine, for their “personal courage, sincere love for the Fatherland, readiness for self-sacrifice and heroism”.

He told the General, a former bodyguard to President Putin, that the Guard was “now fulfilling its military duty”, and said that the Russian Orthodox Church would continue “fruitfully co-operating” with it to “strengthen the morale of military personnel, and their patriotic and moral education”.

Meanwhile, the Russian Church’s foreign-relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), reiterated in an interview with the Rossiya-24 TV channel that Patriarch Kirill’s video talk on 16 March with the Archbishop of Canterbury had provided an opportunity to reach “a common, as far as possible, approach to the situation in Ukraine”, adding that the Church of England’s official status gave it “a direct influence on political processes”.

Although more guarded about Patriarch Kirill’s parallel conversation with Pope Francis, Metropolitan Hilarion disclosed that preparations were still under way for a personal meeting this year between the Patriarch and the Pope, to follow up their February 2016 encounter in Cuba.

In a letter last week to the Brussels-based RC Commission of European Union Bishops’ Conferences (COMECE), Metropolitan Hilarion insisted that Patriarch Kirill was doing “much to restore peace and trust” in Ukraine, ensuring that “direct negotiations” continued, and relations between Russia and the West still had “potential for dialogue”.

He urged COMECE to work with the EU “to prevent further escalation”, and help to overcome current difficulties “on the basis of the Christian values which unite us all”.

AlamyThe destroyed Church of St Nicholas, in the village of Novoignatyivka, in the Donetsk region, early in March

“It is completely obvious that the current conflict cannot be resolved through yet more public statements,” the Metropolitan said. He was replying to an early March peace appeal to Patriarch Kirill by the president of COMECE, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich.

“Relationships between the West and Russia have reached a deadlock, resulting in a loss of mutual trust and capacity to hear each other. In this situation, it is essential to renounce the rhetoric of ultimatums and establish channels of dialogue. . . As Christians, we are called to further this cause by our prayers and work.”

On Tuesday, in a sign of hardening attitudes, President Biden defended recent unscripted remarks branding President Putin a “butcher”, who could not “remain in power”.

Meanwhile, Moscow expelled ten diplomats from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, in response to the expulsion of 108 Russians in the past fortnight by Poland, Belgium, Ireland, and other EU member-states for alleged espionage.

Addressing pilgrims on Sunday in St Peter’s Square, the Pope thanked Christians worldwide for their “huge and intense participation” in his consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary during a televised ceremony from Rome, on 25 March: a symbolic event welcomed by RC leaders in both countries.

Visiting Warsaw this week, the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, pledged solidarity with the 3.9 million Ukrainians forced to flee their country because of Russia’s invasion on 24 February, and thanked Poland for showing “generosity, charity, and hospitality” by taking in almost two-thirds of them, in addition to the two million Ukrainians already in the country before the conflict.

Meanwhile, the acting secretary-general of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Revd Ioan Sauca, a Romanian Orthodox priest, warned President Putin and President Zelensky of Ukraine in a joint letter that previously friendly Russians and Ukrainians were now “demonising one another, full of hatred as the rest of the world takes sides”. He said that he was “especially troubled by disregard for the most fundamental moral and legal principles demanding protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure”.

“We hear about a project for a new world order, a critical escalation of political and military tensions between East and West, raising again the spectre of nuclear conflagration, and portending at least another long-standing division of the continent of Europe,” Fr Sauca told the two heads of state.

“Voicing the plea of your own people and of our member-churches from all over the world, I implore you to stop the war immediately, ask your soldiers to return to their families, and put an end to all hostilities. . .”

Calls are growing for the Russian Orthodox Church to be excluded from the WCC’s 11th plenary assembly, in Germany, from 31 August to 8 September. In a communiqué last week, however, the Russian Church’s governing Holy Synod named a 23-member delegation for the assembly, entitled “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.”

Headed by Metropolitan Hilarion, the delegation will include eight archbishops and bishops, including Metropolitan Leonid (Gorbachov), the Patriarchal Exarch of the Russian Church’s two new African dioceses. Their formation last December on the territory of the Patriarchate of Alexandria has been widely condemned across the Orthodox world (News, 14 January).

In a statement on Monday, the Moscow Patriarchate said that 23,000 refugees from Ukraine were being “assisted” by the Church over 44 dioceses, and that 137 were being accommodated in church institutions, which had so far collected 2,866,000 roubles (£25,000) for war victims.

The Vladivostok-born head of Russia’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Archbishop Dietrich Brauer, told a German newspaper that he had fled the country last week, as minority denominations came under growing state pressure to speak up in support of the war.

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