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Putin’s troops enter Ukraine, despite prayers for peace and threats of retaliation

24 February 2022

Church leaders plead with Russian president to no avail


Video showing Russian military vehicles crossing into Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast from Crimea through the Kalanchak border control point early on Thursday morning

Video showing Russian military vehicles crossing into Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast from Crimea through the Kalanchak border control point early on Thursda...

THE Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine on Thursday morning came despite days of diplomatic efforts and special pleading from religious leaders.

As late as Tuesday, as Russian forces were poised to enter eastern Ukraine for what President Putin originally described as peacekeeping duties, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC) appealed urgently for “an end to the dangerous geopolitical competition that has precipitated this crisis, for de-escalation and reduction of tensions, and for respect for international law and established national borders.”

The WCC statement urged a “peaceful resolution of long-standing tensions and divisions” under international law.

The military invasion early on Thursday brought instant condemnation from political leaders in the UK and around the world. President Joe Biden said: “The prayers of the entire world are with the people of Ukraine tonight as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces.

“President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering.

“Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable.”

Boris Johnson said: “President Putin has chosen a path of bloodshed and destruction by launching this unprovoked attack on Ukraine. The UK and our allies will respond decisively.”

The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said that President Putin’s actions “will have horrendous and tragic consequences that will echo throughout the world and throughout history”.

At an emergency session of the UN security council — chaired by Russia, which holds the rotating presidency — the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, appealed directly to the Russian president: “President Putin – stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”

The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that Russia would be hit with “a package of massive and targeted sanctions” later on Thursday. “We will freeze Russian assets in the EU, and stop the access of Russian banks to the European financial market. . . These sanctions are designed to take a heavy toll on the Kremlin’s interests and on their ability to finance the war.”

Church leaders in the region were more or less divided along national lines in the run up to war. In a message earlier in the week, the leader of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, accused the Kremlin of “expanding its aggression, using the rhetoric of protecting Orthodoxy”, and said that Russia’s occupation of Crimea and Donbas already showed how “bloodshed, ruin, captivity, and fear come with the Kremlin occupiers”.

He continued: “For us, the Ukrainian people, there can be only one answer to the Kremlin’s aggression: united resistance, protection of the native land, freedom and dignity, struggle with the aggressor to victory. The Ukrainian people may have different beliefs, but the state of Ukraine is one. History has repeatedly shown that only a sovereign, independent Ukraine is a space where citizens of different political views, ethnic backgrounds, and religious beliefs can remain free.”

There was unusual unity with the Primate of Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev, however. He warned on Monday that war would be a “grave sin before God”, saying in a website message that his Church had “consistently supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine”.

A Pentecostal pastor and former Red Army soldier, Gennadiy Mokhnenko, who runs rehabilitation centres for orphans and drug addicts in Mariupol, also urged parents of Russian servicemen not to be “fooled by Kremlin villains”.

In a website message, he said: “My own children have been seeing war on the front line from their bedrooms for eight years — their whole childhood has been a war. Your sons could be thrown into a hellish massacre started by the Kremlin — and then even I, a pastor, will have no choice but to take up arms and defend my children.”

Among other Ukrainian statements, the Muslim mufti of Crimea, Ayder Rustemov, urged Muslim soldiers in the Russian army to desert and return home, warning that a war would force them to “fight Muslims defending Ukraine and their homes, families, and honour”.

In Moscow, however, the Patriarchate’s deputy director, Bishop Savva Tutunov, welcomed President Putin’s address on Monday in which he said that modern Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia, and, more precisely, Bolshevik, Communist Russia”, and had “never had a tradition of genuine statehood”. This speech, said Bishop Tutunov, opened “new horizons” for modern Russian statehood. “The president’s language restores the completeness of our perception of Russian history.

“We are no longer 30 or 100 years old — we are now more than 1000 years old again. Today, the clock was restarted, and we very much hope the president’s speech marks the beginning of treatment for our amnesia.”

Bishop Tutunov also serves as Vicar to the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill. In a message on Wednesday for Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day, Patriarch Kirill praised President Putin’s “high and responsible service to the people of Russia”, saying that the Russian Orthodox Church viewed the country’s armed forces as “actively manifesting evangelical love for neighbours, and fidelity to high moral ideals of truth and goodness”.

“We honour the feat of those who carry out responsible military service, stand guard over the borders of their native country, and take care of strengthening its defence capability and national security,” the Patriarch told President Putin.

“Valour and courage, determination, and ardent love for the fatherland and a readiness for self-sacrifice — these qualities have distinguished our people for centuries.”

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