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We need more help to defeat Russians, say Ukrainian church leaders

08 March 2022

Nato is urged to introduce a no-fly zone over the country

Alamy

Residents of Irpin evacuated the town on foot on Tuesday as the Russian military closed in

Residents of Irpin evacuated the town on foot on Tuesday as the Russian military closed in

CHURCH leaders in Ukraine have deplored the growing number of civilian deaths in the current war and have backed calls for firmer Western action.

The Patriarch of Moscow has disregarded worldwide pleas for him to call for a halt in the fighting.

“We are seeing first-hand how Russian invaders resort to the most cynical methods of warfare, prohibited by international humanitarian law,” the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Russia is waging a war against the civilian population of Ukraine, deliberately firing ballistic missiles and conducting air raids on residential areas, schools, kindergartens, maternity hospitals, clinics, and critical infrastructure facilities necessary to ensure the life of the civilian population — sometimes using prohibited cluster and vacuum munitions.”

The statement was published as the United Nations confirmed that more than two million refugees had now fled Ukraine, half to neighbouring Poland. The UN demanded secure humanitarian corridors to protect others seeking safety from the country’s besieged towns and cities.

The Council said that Russian forces had shown “unjustified cruelty and unrestrained aggression” by shelling safe routes, evacuation buses, and ambulances, while their political leaders revealed a “disdainful attitude to human life” by throwing Russian soldiers “into the jaws of a war of conquest”.

It said that historic churches had also been shelled and bombed, alongside residential buildings, notably in the mostly Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv, where the Orthodox Holy Dormition Cathedral had been damaged, and an Evangelical church had been totally destroyed.

“We once again call on NATO, as a security partner of Ukraine, the UN, European Union, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and Council of Europe to take urgent measures to introduce a no-fly zone over Ukraine,” said the Council, which groups Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Churches, as well as Jewish and Muslim associations.

“We call on them to provide Ukraine’s armed forces with modern air-defence equipment, including fighter-planes, in order to protect our greatest values — human lives and civilian infrastructure — from barbaric shelling and bombing by the Russian invaders.”

Besides sacred buildings in Kharkiv, where the RC Cathedral of the Assumption and adjoining curia buildings were also damaged by Russian missile blasts, places of worship have also been wrecked in the besieged southern cities of Mariupol and Kherson, as well as in Boryspil, Sumy, Zhytomyr, and towns close to Kyiv.

On Monday, the All-Ukrainian Union of the Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists said that four of its churches had been destroyed by Russian artillery, while fears have grown for the landmark 11th-century St Sophia’s Cathedral, in Kyiv, which stands close to the Ukraine’s Security Service HQ.

Meanwhile, another priest with Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, the Revd Rostislav Dudarenko, was shot dead by Russian troops at a checkpoint on Saturday in his native village of Yasnogorodka, near Kyiv, amid growing fears that clergy not linked to Russian Orthodoxy could be targeted by attacking forces.

The leader of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, confirmed on Tuesday that Orthodox religious sites were coming under fire, despite Russian claims to be “defending the Church”. He accused invading troops of “trampling on the rules of law” in a repeat of scenes from the Second World War.

“I understand it makes no practical sense to turn to the Russian occupiers; so I just want to warn them that each of them will personally answer to God for the bloodshed, suffering, tears, and ruined lives,” Metropolitan Epiphany said in a message after visiting wounded Ukrainian servicemen at the National Military Hospital in Kyiv.

“From the thousands of residents of Mariupol, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Gostomel, Irpin, Bucha, and others who are now being killed by Russian troops, I raise my voice and call on states and international institutions to act. . . May the wrath of God and the inevitable retribution promised to these murderers fall upon them!”

Speaking to Greek TV on Sunday, Metropolitan Epiphany said that Russian agents had attempted to kill him three times since the start of the invasion, most recently at St Michael’s Cathedral, Kyiv.

AlamyA packed House of Commons listens to the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, via videolink on Tuesday

Appeals for peace had grown increasingly desperate by midweek, as Russian forces pummelled Ukrainian cities and massed for an assault on Kyiv. President Zelensky pledged, in an address on Tuesday evening to the UK Parliament, to continue fighting “in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, and in the streets”.

The head of Ukraine’s Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Onufriy Berezovsky, approved “intensified prayers”, drafted by his synod, “for the Ukrainian army, for the power of our state and all its people, for victory and the establishment of peace”, but also appealed to President Putin to “do everything to stop the war”.

“You can do this, and we believe and want you to do it,” Metropolitan Onufriy told the Russian ruler in a public statement. “Russian troops are fighting against Ukraine — people are dying, civilians are dying, children are dying. . . We especially wanted peace and harmony between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, for these peoples to live as good neighbours, in mutual respect and with patience and love.”

As another sign of the split with the Moscow Patriarchate, the Mukachevo and Ivano-Frankivsk eparchies of the Moscow-linked Orthodox Church in Ukraine became the latest to stop remembering Patriarch Kirill in parish liturgies. They cited his failure to condemn the war. Clergy groups are demanding that their Church declare independence from Moscow.

In an emotional address to 25,000 pilgrims in St Peter’s Square, on Sunday, Pope Francis said that “rivers of blood and tears” were now “flowing in Ukraine”, and the need for assistance was “growing dramatically by the hour”. He called for “guaranteed humanitarian corridors” for civilians seeking emergency aid and shelter.

He said that he had sent two Rome-based Cardinals — Konrad Krajewski, papal almoner or household director, and Michael Czerny, Interim Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development — to Ukraine, to offer aid and spiritual support.

“This is not merely a military operation, but a war, sowing death, destruction, and misery; the number of victims is increasing, as are people fleeing, especially mothers and children,” the Pope said.

“I make a heartfelt appeal for aid to be guaranteed and access facilitated to the besieged areas, in order to offer vital relief to our brothers and sisters oppressed by bombs and fear. I thank all those who are taking in refugees. Above all, I implore that the armed attacks cease, that negotiation and common sense prevail, and that international law be respected once again.”

AlamyWomen pack boxes of humanitarian supplies in the Zakarpattia region, western Ukraine, on Monday

The Vatican said that its Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, had urged an end to military attacks in favour of negotiations, in telephone talks on Tuesday with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, during which the Cardinal also repeated the Holy See’s readiness “to do everything possible to assist peace”.

In a sign of toughening attitudes, however, a Vatican News commentary on Sunday referred critically to the Russian State Duma’s adoption of a law imposing up to 15 years’ jail for citizens who spread “false information about the armed forces”, and said that there were “those who claim to call this dirty war a military operation”.

The commentary went on to say that Pope Francis had “refuted the fake news that seeks to present what is happening with verbal subterfuge to mask the cruel reality”, and confirmed that Ukraine faced “a war of aggression, where there are those who attack and those who defend themselves”.

President Putin’s forces invaded in the early hours of 24 February (News, 25 February), triggering strong resistance from Ukraine’s 200,000-strong armed forces, as well as a sharp fall in the Russian rouble amid Western economic sanctions and pledges of military assistance to Kyiv.

No progress was reported at a third round of Russian-Ukrainian talks on the Belarus border on Monday. Moscow continued demanding Ukraine’s “demilitarisation”, and recognition of its forced 2014 annexation of Crimea, as well as the Kyiv government’s acceptance of independent republics at Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern Donbas region, where more than 14,000 soldiers and civilians have died in eight years of fighting with Russian-backed separatists.

In a national message on Sunday (6 March), traditionally marked as Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church, however, President Zelensky said that his country had been hit, so far, by more than 500 Russian missiles, and would “punish all atrocities”. Ukrainians would “never forgive” the “ruined destinies and mutilated lives” left by Russia’s aggression, he said.

In a televised address for Tuesday’s International Women’s Day, President Putin told relatives of soldiers “fighting to defend Russia during the special military operation” that they should be proud of them, “just as the whole country is proud and concerned”.

Statements of support for President Putin’s “military operation” have come from Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist leaders in Russia, who have endorsed its stated aims of curbing Western threats and rooting out Nazis and nationalists in Ukraine.

AlamyEmergency accommodation in a gym in Uzhhorod, western Ukraine, on Monday

More appeals to President Putin to stop the war have come from Orthodox leaders abroad, however, including Patriarch Porfirije Peric of Serbia, who said in a sermon at the weekend that the war spelled “danger for those of us living in areas still divided and insufficiently reconciled”.

Direct peace appeals have also been made by RC Bishops’ Conferences in Britain, Germany, Poland, and other countries, to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. More than 5000 people were arrested in Russia during anti-war protests on Sunday amid a nationwide clampdown on news and information.

In a message last week, the Romanian Orthodox acting general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Professor Ioan Sauca, told Patriarch Kirill that he was receiving letters daily asking him to request the Patriarch to “intervene and mediate” with Russia’s rulers, “as the one who could bring a sign of hope for a peaceful solution”.

In a separate message, the President of the Conference of European Churches, the Revd Christian Krieger, said that millions of Christians were “appalled by the aggression of the Russian armed forces”, and also pleaded with Patriarch Kirill to raise his voice and “affirm the value of all human lives, including the lives of Ukrainian citizens under attack”.

“Religious and political leaders around the world, as well as the faithful of different Churches, are waiting for you to recognise the aggression, and call on your country’s political leadership to end the war and return to the path of diplomatic dialogue and international order,” Mr Krieger, a French Lutheran, told the Patriarch.

“I am disheartened by your daunting silence on the unprovoked war that your country declared against another country, which is home to millions of Christians, including Orthodox Christians that belong to your flock.”

No response to any appeals had been published by Wednesday on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website, which has mostly carried news of ceremonial and celebratory church events in Russia.

In a weekend interview with the Rossiya-24 TV channel, the head of the Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society and Mass Media, Vladimir Legoyda, said that Patriarch Kirill was backing help for refugees fleeing to Russia, and had now authorised a prayer for peace, which also called for the failure of “external forces that are trying to divide our peoples”, and for the crushing of “plots by foreign forces who wish to fight and take aim at Holy Rus”.

In a homily for Forgiveness Sunday, Patriarch Kirill said that Russia’s Church was praying for “our Orthodox brothers in the Donbass”, who were suffering for “fundamentally rejecting the so-called values offered today by those claiming world power”.

He said that the “most powerful in the world” were “forcing people to deny God and his truth”, and demanding participation in “gay parades” as a “test of loyalty and a pass to the world of excessive consumption. . .

“If humanity does not recognise that sin is a violation of God’s law, if humanity sees sin as just an option of human behaviour, then this is the end of human civilisation,” the Russian Orthodox leader said. His remarks were carried by the Interfax news agency.

He continued: “Today, in Ukraine, we have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance. . . Let us pray that all those fighting today, shedding blood and suffering, will enter into the joy of resurrection in peace and joy. What joy will there be if some are in peace, and others under the power of evil, in the sorrow of internecine warfare!”

In a sign of the Russian Church’s growing isolation, the Jesuit-founded University of Fribourg, in Switzerland, confirmed on Tuesday that it had suspended Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the Moscow Patriarchate’s foreign-relations director, from his theology faculty professorship.

A prominent Greek Orthodox theologian and ecumenist, Ioannis Orfanoudakis, called on the WCC this week to expel the Russian Church for “violating fundamental values of Christianity”, while the Prior of France’s ecumenical Taizé Community, Brother Alois Löser, told Deutsche Welle that he also feared a deepening division between Churches.

The Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, enacted a law last week prohibiting “information products aimed at promoting actions by the aggressor state”, and barring “activities by religious organisations, public associations and political parties which promote the aggressor”.

Both Orthodox Churches in Ukraine have offered dispensations from fasting and regular church attendance during Lent because of military duties. They have also endorsed shorter funeral liturgies and emergency lay-administered baptisms.

In a sermon in Kyiv on Sunday, Metropolitan Epiphany urged Ukrainians to “forget previous disputes and divisions” and “unite around a single goal: victory over the aggressor”, and said that his independent Church’s “doors and hearts” were open to those wishing to join.

“Every Russian bomb, rocket, and shell on Ukrainian soil finally kills the myths of Holy Russia and the Triune People,” the Metropolitan told Orthodox clergy in his accompanying message.

“The enemy cannot understand why the Ukrainian people are resisting. Yet the answer is very simple: because we know our own history. Our current suffering is measured in hours and days, whereas under the yoke of Kremlin tyranny, the Ukrainian people lived for decades tortured by hunger and repression.”

AlamyPatriarch Kirill with President Putin at the start of February, the 13th anniversary of his enthronement as head of the Russian Orthodox Church

In a mark of growing pressure on Russian-linked faith groups, the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, enacted a law last week prohibiting “the production and distribution of information products aimed at promoting the actions of the aggressor state”, and barring “activities by religious organisations, public associations and political parties which promote the aggressor”.

In a sermon in Kyiv on Sunday, Metropolitan Epiphany urged Ukrainians to “forget previous disputes and divisions” and “unite around a single goal: victory over the aggressor”.

He said that Orthodox Christians could be dispensed during the war from Lenten fasts and “statutory norms of worship”, in favour of “acts of charity, sacrifice, help, and mutual support”.

He also urged Christians, however, to continue praying “for mercy for our suffering people, and a proper retribution for criminals and murderers”, and said that his independent Church’s “doors and hearts” were open to those wishing to join.

“Every Russian bomb, rocket, and shell on Ukrainian soil finally kills the myths of Holy Russia and the Triune People,” the Metropolitan told Orthodox clergy in his accompanying message.

“The enemy cannot understand why the Ukrainian people are resisting.
Yet the answer is very simple: because we know our own history. Our current suffering is measured in hours and days, whereas under the yoke of Kremlin tyranny, the Ukrainian people lived for decades tortured by hunger and repression.”

Read more on the Ukraine war in our Comment section here and here; in our Letters here; and Lord Williams’s letter in Press here

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