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Keep resisting Russian invasion, church leaders tell Ukrainians

02 March 2022

But a rift with Russia could remain for ever, says governing synod


Aerial footage of a residential building destroyed by shelling in the Borodyanka settlement near Kyiv, on Wednesday

Aerial footage of a residential building destroyed by shelling in the Borodyanka settlement near Kyiv, on Wednesday

RELIGIOUS leaders in Ukraine have urged its citizens to continue resisting the Russian invasion (News, 25 February), as churches around the world condemned the war, and Anglicans in Europe held a special service for peace.

“Remember firmly that the truth is on our side — and where the truth is, there is God and victory,” the leader of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, told Christians this week.

“Defenders of Ukraine, brothers and sisters, you have ruined the aggressor’s intentions for a quick victory. The whole world admires how Ukraine has successfully resisted Russian aggression.”

The message was released as Russian tanks continued to advance on Kyiv, despite aborted peace talks. By mid-week, dozens of Ukrainian civilians had been reported killed by missiles and shells in the country’s second city, Kharkhiv.

In a new sign of its distancing itself from the Moscow Patriarchate, the Primate of the Moscow-linked Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Metropolitan Onufriy Berezovsky, instructed all parishes to pray for God’s mercy amid the “cries and groans of the Ukrainian people” and “making the authorities wise and strengthening our army with courage”.

In a follow-up message, the Church’s governing synod warned that the war had “dealt a severe blow to relations between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples”, and told Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky that the rift could “remain for ever” unless the “sin of armed confrontation” was stopped.

The synod said that President Putin’s high alert for Russia’s nuclear forces on Sunday night had “put in question the future existence of humanity”, and urged the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to “call on the Russian Federation’s leadership immediately to halt hostilities already threatening to turn into a world war. . .

“The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has always supported and continues to support the state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine — we fully share the pain and suffering of our people,” the synod statement said.

“Our temples are open around the clock for those needing protection from shelling. Every day, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is expanding its mission to help all those in need.”

On Tuesday, the Orthodox Church in Russia said that 18,000 refugees from separatist-occupied eastern Ukraine were being assisted by its dioceses, a figure dwarfed by humanitarian aid currently provided by Western Churches.

Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill faced renewed criticism abroad, after telling a Sunday congregation in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, that he was praying for “peace in the Russian land”, which “includes Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Russia”.

He continued, in an address carried by Russia’s Interfax news agency: “May the Lord preserve our Church in unity, and protect from fratricidal battle the peoples comprising the one space of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“God forbid the present political situation in fraternal Ukraine, so close to us, should be aimed at making the evil forces that have always strived against the Russian Church gain the upper hand.”

Several parishes were reported to have transferred allegiance since the invasion to Metropolitan Epiphany’s Church, while clergy in the Rivne-Ostroh, Sumy, Mukachevo, Vladimir-Volhynia and Zhytomyr eparchies urged their bishops this week to cease naming Patriarch Kirill in the liturgy.

Ukraine’s retired Metropolitan Filaret Denisenko joined other public figures in calling on Tuesday for Metropolitan Onufriy to sever canonical links with the Moscow Patriarchate, and unite in “a single, local, autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church exclusively serving the interests of the Ukrainian people”.

AlamyMakeshift barricade in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, on Tuesday

Detachments from the Russian invasion force, amassed in border regions since last autumn, attacked Ukraine in the early hours of 24 February, triggering fierce resistance from Ukraine’s 200,000-strong armed forces and a refugee exodus, as well as a sharp fall in the Russian rouble amid Western economic sanctions and pledges of military assistance to Kyiv.

Peace talks took place on the Belarus border on Monday, as Russian troops held several frontier areas but took heavy casualties, and failed to secure advances on most urban targets, including Ukraine’s heavily shelled second city, Kharkhiv.

Anglicans in the diocese in Europe joined in an online prayer service on Tuesday at the invitation of the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, who said that many ordinary Russians also “deeply deplored” the “completely unjustified and aggressive war against Ukraine”.

“In the face of military action, we can easily feel powerless and fearful — but one thing we can do is pray in solidarity with those most affected,” Dr Innes said in a website message.

“We can pray that God will yet overrule in the hearts and minds of those with power and authority. We can pray that the victims will be few, and that the innocent will be protected. We can pray that peace will come through justice and not through the infliction of the will of a stronger party on a weaker.”

A churchwarden at the Christ Church chaplaincy in Kyiv, Christina Laschenko, said during the service that 20,000 mostly young volunteers had joined Ukraine’s territorial defence force in Kyiv alone since the invasion; and she had witnessed a group of saboteurs being captured on Tuesday.

She said that parishioners of various nationalities remained in the threatened city, mostly in bunkers and metro stations, and that there were now grave concerns about radiation leaks from the Russian-occupied Chernobyl nuclear site, as well as flooding, if invading forces destroyed Kyiv’s hydro-power plant on the River Dnieper.

The Chaplain of St Andrew’s, Moscow, Canon Malcolm Rogers, said that foreign Anglican students in Russia had been left without hard currency, and were afraid of being stranded by the cutting of land and air links.

Many Russians feared a return to the economic conditions of the 1980s, he said, and felt betrayed by past government assurances that “any talk of war was a Western fabrication. . .

“It seems a deep darkness — political, economic, military, and spiritual — has fallen on Ukraine and is falling on Russia,” said Canon Rogers, who is also the area dean for the two countries.

“Of course, there are those who support this war. . . But there is also a huge amount of fear — of what happens if it all gets out of control, of what it means for both Ukraine and Russia, of total isolation from the West, of becoming a hated pariah people. More than a few have said they are ashamed of being Russian.”

In one of several dissenting public appeals in Russia, where hundreds have been arrested during anti-war protests, several dozen Orthodox clergy deplored the trials “undeservedly undergone” by Ukrainians, who had “the right to make a choice on their own, not under the pressure of rifles”, and urged an end to the “fratricidal war” in time for the Orthodox Church’s Reconciliation Sunday (before Great Lent begins) on 6 March.

Churches abroad have continued to denounce President Putin’s actions, amid worldwide demonstrations, and were expected to join an ecumenical day of prayer and fasting for peace, called by the Pope on Ash Wednesday.

Speaking in St Peter’s Square last Sunday, Pope Francis said that Roman Catholics had been shocked by the outbreak of war, after “repeatedly praying this road would not be chosen”, and that said anyone waging war “forgets humanity” and “puts partial interests and power above all”.

“He trusts in the diabolical and perverted logic of the weapon that is furthest from God’s will,” he told pilgrims. “He moves away from ordinary people who want peace; and, in every conflict, it is ordinary people who are the real victims, paying a personal price for the madness of war.”

AlamyThe funeral on Monday of two teachers, Yelena Kudrin and Yelena Ivanova, who were killed during the shelling of Gorlovka, near Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, last weekend

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, warned Italian newspapers that escalation of the conflict to other countries would risk a “gigantic catastrophe”. He said that Pope Francis had urged “a stop to fighting and return to negotiations” during an unprecedented personal visit to the Russian embassy in Rome on 25 February, and was offering further help.

“Although what we feared and hoped would not happen has happened — a war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine — I am convinced there is always room for negotiation. It is never too late,” Cardinal Parolin said.

“The Holy See, which has followed events in Ukraine over recent years constantly, discreetly, and with great attention, is willing to facilitate dialogue with Russia, and always ready to help the parties resume that path.”

Fears of a larger war spread as weapons and military equipment were sent to Ukraine, and thousands of Ukrainians abroad returned home to fight.

Leaders of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches have offered help in repatriating the remains of dead Russian soldiers, put at several thousand by Ukrainian officials, aided by a special hotline for their relatives.

Metropolitan Epiphany’s Church issued instructions on Facebook for lay people wishing to baptise children “in extreme conditions”, after reports of births in city bunkers, while the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, authorised the ringing of church bells for air-raid warnings

Anxiety about a possible crackdown on religious denominations also grew, however, when a priest from the independent Orthodox Church, the Revd Maksym Kozachyn, who led the Nativity parish at Ivankiv, was shot dead in his car by Russian troops at the weekend, according to media reports.

Another, the Revd Vasily Vyrozub, from Holy Trinity, Odessa, was seized when he attempted to retrieve the remains of Ukrainian soldiers killed in a firefight on the Black Sea last week.

The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who sparked Russian anger by recognising the new Church in January 2019 (News, 8 February 2019), declared “solidarity with the Ukrainian people”, and urged the “restoration of a just peace” on a visit to Ukrainian consulate in Istanbul on Monday, a day after speaking with President Zelensky by phone.

The President of the Conference of European Churches, the Revd Christian Krieger, said in a weekend message that Russia’s “act of war” had flouted “the sanctity of borders, people’s right to self-determination and stability in the region”, and called on the international community to help restore peace.

As missile and artillery barrages on Kyiv had intensified by midweek, Ukraine’s Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, combining Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives, said that it feared the destruction of religious sites such as the capital’s 11th-century St Sophia’s Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage monument, and asked foreign governments to persuade Russia “to refrain from criminal attacks on Ukrainian cities”.

Media reports said that the roof of the curia of the Roman Catholic diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia had been blown off by a Russian rocket, while the head of the Ukrainian Greek Major Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk, of Kyiv-Galicia, said in a statement on Tuesday that he had seen “destroyed schools, kindergartens, cinemas, and museums”.

On Wednesday, the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, Moshe Reuven Azman, deplored three Russian missile attacks that largely demolished the Babyn Yar memorial in Kyviv, which commemorates more than 100,000 Jews murdered by Nazi occupiers in 1941-43.

The head of Ukraine’s Muslim “Crimea Battalion”, Isa Akayev, urged Russian conscripts to desert in a message on Tuesday, and warned that his fighters would “fight and kill in the ways permitted by sharia”.

The President of the All-Ukrainian Union of the Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, Valerii Antoniuk, said that church centres nationwide were receiving humanitarian aid, but also urged Christians to “stand up for their country”.

“Today, all forces must be mobilised to help our people, our army, and our hospitals — for our common victory and the blessing of our people,” Mr Antoniuk said in a message on Monday.

“Today, we need healthy, sober words of hope — words that our army, defence forces, doctors, and authorities should all hear.”

Read more on Ukraine in our Comment section here and here

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