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Conflict likely to get worse, say Ukrainian church leaders

22 April 2022

Russian Orthodox leaders pressured to call for ceasefire


An Orthodox church damaged during a Russian attack in Sievierodonetsk, in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, on Saturday

An Orthodox church damaged during a Russian attack in Sievierodonetsk, in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, on Saturday

CHURCHES in Ukraine have advised citizens to be ready for an intensification of Russia’s invasion, as representatives of the Council of Europe condemned the destruction of religious sites, and pressure continued for Russian Orthodox leaders to call for a ceasefire in the two-month war.

“The war that Russia has imposed on us and on the whole world did not begin with missiles and bombs — it began with deception, untruth, and lies,” the head of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), said in a Sunday homily.

“The Lord is now showing us how we must resist with the testimony of truth. Evil is evil, not just an alternative viewpoint, and war is war, not just some conflict. Rapists, looters, and murderers are criminals, and what they are perpetrating is a genocide of the Ukrainian people.”

Metropolitan Epiphany was speaking as evidence emerged that Russian forces had launched a new offensive along a 300-mile front line in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. Moscow confirmed on Monday that its shells and missiles had struck more than 1000 targets.

The Metropolitan said that Ukrainians knew from experience that Russia had long concealed “evil plans to restore the tyranny of a rotten, overthrown empire”, and that the divine commandment to love neighbours did not mean “loving the evil they do”.

Meanwhile, the Primate of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, thanked Western diplomats who had now returned to Kyiv, but also cautioned that his country faced “a sharp increase in aggressive actions by the occupiers”, who were using firepower unmatched since the Second World War.

Ukrainians were praying for victory in besieged areas of their country, he said, but this could also be “the last Easter” for many, including himself. “Ukraine still stands — and we owe it to our armed forces’ heroic efforts that we can see the morning of God and address prayers to our Lord and Saviour,” Archbishop Shevchuk said in a message on Monday for the Eastern Churches’ Holy Week.

“As the war escalates, and the enemy intensifies its offensive against Ukraine, I call on everyone to pray vigorously and tirelessly for the Ukrainian army, because the fate of Ukraine and the world is now being decided.”

Heavy fighting was reported by midweek around the Donbas city of Luhansk, as well as against last-stand Ukrainian defenders in the largely destroyed port of Mariupol, from where at least 40,000 inhabitants were said by local officials to have been forcibly deported to Russia.

Russian shelling was also reported against Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Mykolaiv, as well as against an arms factory close to Kyiv, in what officials in the capital said was retaliation for the sinking last week of the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship, Moskva.

In a weekend appeal, the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations urged new Holy Week humanitarian corridors for thousands of civilians and children trapped by the fighting without water, food, medical care, electricity, or heating, and offered to help prevent “provocations” during aid supplies and evacuations.

Representatives of the 47-country Council of Europe said that they were “appalled” by the destruction of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship vital to Ukraine’s “diverse religious communities”.

The statement, co-signed by officials from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, warned that the wrecking of dozens of religious sites, confirmed this week by UNESCO’s World Heritage director, Lazare Eloundou Assomo, would constitute a “crime against humanity”, alongside the indiscriminate killing of civilians.

A plan in Rome for a Ukrainian and a Russian to carry a cross together during a Good Friday liturgy at the Colosseum, in Rome, were said by Ukraine’s Religious Information Service to have provoked a “wave of outrage”, and most TV channels refused to broadcast the ceremony.

Although the joint meditation by the two women, urging God to “speak amid the silence of death and division”, was abandoned in face of criticism, a spokesman for Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, Archbishop Evstratiy (Zorya), accused the Vatican in a post on Facebook of ignoring Ukrainian sensitivities by seeking to “reconcile the victim with the aggressor during a war”.

“They must first stop killing us, and then we can talk about the next steps,” the Archbishop told a radio interviewer.

Speaking last week, the Pope’s Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, assured Vatican Radio that Rome officials were well aware “it was the Russian side which started this terrible war,” and that world opinion should also understand that there would be “military or political solution” to the conflict.

On Tuesday, the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero reported that the Vatican’s Liverpool-born Secretary for Relations with States, within the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, would visit Kyiv shortly. The Papal Almoner, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, prayed besides a mass grave at Borodyanka, on Good Friday, during his third trip to Ukraine since the Russian invasion on 24 February.

AlamyResidents near Mykolaiv wait to receive water, on Tuesday, after mains supplies were destroyed in the fighting

In a weekend statement, Metropolitan Epiphany said that he feared “possible enemy provocations” during the Orthodox Easter this coming Sunday, while Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council also warned that Russian units could shell Orthodox churches during festival celebrations and then “try to accuse the armed forces of Ukraine”.

Parallel warnings from the Russian side seemed to bear this out. A spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, Vladimir Legoyda, said that Easter could be used by “forces interested in aggravating fratricidal hatred”. And the Russian Defence Ministry said that it had “operational evidence” that Ukrainian “nationalist battalions” had been equipped with mortars for shelling Orthodox churches, “in order to accuse the Russian army of killing civilians”.

In the latest international appeal to Patriarch Kirill, the World Council of Churches’ (WCC’s) acting general secretary, the Revd Professor Ioan Sauca, urged him to request a ceasefire “for at least a few hours” during Easter services on 24 April.

He said that the WCC was receiving “daily requests” from all over the world to ask the Russian Patriarch “to intervene and mediate for a peaceful solution”.

“We now hear worrying news of plans to attack churches during Easter night celebrations, and to spread even more terror, fear, mutual accusations, and demonisation,” the Romanian Orthodox priest said in his letter on Tuesday.

“We urge you to give a chance to soldiers and terrified civilians to embrace one another with the paschal greeting, to silence for a moment the bombs and missiles, and to hear instead the triumphant sound of church bells and the joyful singing of faithful people.”

Calls for an Easter truce and “an open window for dialogue and peace” were echoed this week by the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres.

In his latest homilies in Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow, on Sunday and Tuesday, however, Patriarch Kirill urged Russians to find “strength of spirit” and decide “whether they take the side of Judas”, but made no mention of the war in Ukraine.

In a message of condolence on Tuesday, the Patriarch paid glowing tribute to the recently deceased head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, describing him as a personal acquaintance who had supported the Orthodox Church while helping “ensure the sovereignty and security of Russia”.

The Primate of Ukraine’s Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), has continued to face demands for dialogue with the independent Orthodox Church formally established in January 2019, as more parishes secede to the new jurisdiction. Some Ukrainian politicians have called for Metropolitan Onufriy’s Church to be banned.

At least 430 Ukrainian clergy signatures have been collected on a petition to Orthodox Primates worldwide, demanding that Patriarch Kirill be summoned before an international church tribunal for supporting the invasion.

A separate petition by Moscow-affiliated Orthodox laity also called on Metropolitan Onufriy to anathematise supporters of the Russian invasion, and begin consultations for an international council to condemn the actions of the Moscow Patriarchate.

“We shudder at the constant sermons not only by Russian Orthodox priests, in which they idealise the war of aggression, but also at the sermons and statements of Patriarch Kirill, who every Sunday approves and compliments the occupiers,” the petition told Metropolitan Onufriy.

“We ask you, as a man of exemplary Christian morality, to raise your voice against this politicised Orthodoxy, which has clearly served the political interests of the opposing state, forgetting the main spirit of Christian preaching.”

Moscow-linked Orthodox leaders have accused armed groups of seizing their churches in Ukraine, while French police said that they were investigating fire damage to the Russian Orthodox Saint-Seraphin-de-Sarov, Paris, on 23 April, after vandalism at other Russian-owned sites in the city.

The Moscow Patriarchate confirmed on Monday that, owing to “the international situation”, it had postponed a key Bishops’ Council meeting planned for Moscow in May.

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