UKRAINIAN church leaders have hardened their tone amid growing evidence of Russian army atrocities in their country.
“As we received good news that the Kyiv region was liberated, we also received horrific footage of civilian killings: it is difficult to explain and understand how the murder of innocent people and children can be justified,” the leader of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, said.
“Today, we heard that the peoples of Holy Russia are peaceful, while we see the ideology of the ‘Russian world’ justifying murder, violence, and war. This ideology must be rejected and condemned, as was the ideology of Nazism.”
The message was published before a speech on Tuesday by President Zelensky to the United Nations Security Council, describing how civilians were shot in the streets, thrown into wells, and crushed by tanks in a list of alleged Russian war crimes.
The leader of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk, said on Tuesday that “macabre scenes” of people “tortured and killed simply for being Ukrainians and speaking Ukrainian” in towns close to the capital had been displayed “before the eyes of the world” in the run-up to Easter. He counted on the international community, he said, to ensure that the perpetrators would “face their Nuremberg trials”.
“Ukraine is facing its Golgotha, its crucifixion, and today I ask all Christians around the world, all people of good will, not to turn their eyes away from this humiliation and suffering, from the deaths and wounds of Ukraine.”
Ukrainian officials confirmed that the remains of hundreds of civilians, many with marks of torture and rape, had been recovered from Irpin, Hostomel, Borodyanka, and other northern towns recently abandoned by Russian forces. A mass grave near an Orthodox church in Bucha is still being investigated.
AlamyPresident Zelensky addresses the UN Security Council, on Tuesday
In his Security Council speech, President Zelensky said that similar scenes of outrage were being repeated across his country. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, denied that any crimes had been committed.
The European Union and the United States said that they were preparing further sanctions against Moscow, and pledged help for investigations with a view to future war-crime charges.
In a statement on Monday, the World Council of Churches (WCC) expressed abhorrence at the reported atrocities, and called for them to be documented. “War is a context inherently conducive to such brutality, which underlines the need for systems of legal accountability to prosecute perpetrators, in order to curb the worst in humanity,” the statement said. It was signed by the WCC’s Orthodox acting general secretary, the Revd Professor Ioan Sauca.
“We appeal to those responsible for conceiving, pursuing, and supporting this war to stop the bloodshed and destruction, and to save the lives of all the children, women, and men in the way of their ambition.”
Speaking during a visit to Malta at the weekend, Pope Francis described the conflict as a “sacrilegious war”, and told government and civil-society representatives that Europeans had believed that “invasions of other countries, savage street fighting, and atomic threats” were just “grim memories of a distant past”.
In a television interview on Monday, the head of President Zelensky’s office, Andrij Jermak, welcomed the Pope’s disclosure to journalists that he was considering travelling to both Kyiv and neighbouring Poland, after fresh official invitations to both countries, and said that a wartime papal visit to Ukraine would be “historic and very important”.
The Vatican Nuncio in Kyiv, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, said that hospital officials in the capital had confirmed that children were being deliberately targeted by Russian sharp-shooters.
At a general audience in Rome on Wednesday, Pope Francis said that recent news from Ukraine, “instead of bringing relief and hope, testifies instead to new atrocities”, as well as “horrendous cruelty”. He went on to say that the blood of innocent “civilians, women, and defenceless children” in the massacre town of Bucha “cries out to heaven”.
Russian units were reported this week to be reinforcing positions with the aim of establishing control over Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, while also preparing for an assault on the Black Sea port of Odesa.
On Monday, Odesa’s Franciscan RC bishop, the Rt Revd Stanislav Shyrokoradiuk, told Italy’s Servizio Informazione Religiosa that churches had remained open for the mostly “poor, elderly, and sick people” unable to leave, but said that he feared that the historic city with one million residents would suffer “the same as Bucha and Irpin” if captured by Russian forces.
In Kyiv, the Culture and Information Ministry said that it had recorded 135 Russian war crimes against Ukraine’s cultural heritage up to the end of March, including attacks on museums, theatres, libraries, and monuments, which are banned under the 1954 Hague Convention.
In contrast, Russian officials said this week that “authorised federal executive bodies” were continuing to “carefully record numerous flagrant facts of the inhuman treatment of civilians by the Kiev authorities”.
The Moscow Defence Ministry accused Ukrainian “militants” of deploying heavy weapons at St Demetrius Monastery, near Sumy, after driving out its Orthodox clergy, and of storing ammunition in a Jewish synagogue at Uman — a claim denied in a social media post by Ukraine’s United Jewish Community.
Ukraine’s Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church has carried daily details on its website of help provided for war victims and refugees, as well as of funerals conducted for slain Ukrainian soldiers.
It reported damage to churches in various cities, including Kharkiv and Luhansk, where the historic Svyatogorsk Lavra Monastery was flooded when Russian forces blew up a dam on the Oskil Reservoir.
In a statement this week, the Church’s Primate, Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), said that his heart had been “filled with grief” at news of the barbarity in Bucha, saying that he entrusted “those who have committed this violence to the court of God, from which no one can escape”.
The Russian government has warned against a Bill currently before Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, to ban Metropolitan Onufriy’s Church on grounds that its “governing centre” is “located outside Ukraine in a state recognised by law as having carried out military aggression against Ukraine”.
The deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, Archpriest Nikolay Balashov, told the Russian Interfax agency last week that the measure, which is opposed by President Zelensky, would “spark a large-scale intra-faith confrontation with unpredictable consequences” by legalising “church seizures” and “violence targeting clergy and worshippers”.
In an apparently retaliatory move, the head of government in Russian-occupied Crimea, Serhiy Aksyonov, ordered a draft law last week to ban the independent Church of Ukraine.
More Moscow-affiliated parishes, including six in Ukraine’s Khmelnytskyi region, were reported this week to have switched to the independent Ukrainian Church, led by Metropolitan Dumenko, although the Moscow-linked Church denied reports on Wednesday that its cathedral community in Ivano-Frankivsk had also transferred allegiance.
Among the latest reactions to Patriarch Kirill’s apparent endorsement of the Russian invasion, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, told a congregation at vespers on Tuesday in Stavrodromi, Greece, that the Ukrainian conflict was “not a holy and blessed war, as some claim, but a devilish and unholy war”.
The Orthodox Church in Georgia, where one fifth of territory is currently Russian-occupied, expressed “emotional pain and grief” over the “military aggression” in a statement on Tuesday, saying that it was “especially difficult to witness the killings of peaceful, innocent people”.
The Church, whose Patriarch, Ilia II, has repeatedly condemned the Russian invasion, is widely expected to become the world’s fifth to recognise Metropolitan Epiphany’s new Ukrainian Church at a May plenary of its governing Holy Synod.
On Tuesday, UNICEF’s director for Ukraine, Peter Walsh, said that 869 schools — six per cent of the country’s total — had been destroyed, including 50 in Kharkiv, and that two million children had fled the war, while a further 5.5 million were still facing “physical and psycho-emotional injury” inside the country.
In a rare joint appeal last week, the RC Shrines of Europe organisation, which includes the Marian centres of Fatima, Lourdes, and Loreto, urged President Putin to end the war, and the European Union to admit Ukraine.
The Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians also condemned the “unprovoked war” in a website statement. It said that its members prayed for just and lasting peace “in the face of authoritarian tyranny”, and stood “in opposition to the aggression, destruction, and genocide wrought by the invading forces of the Russian Federation”.
Evangelical church sources said that the Bethany Church in Mariupol had been completely destroyed, and that five brothers had been killed by a Russian shell while seeking food for people hiding in its basement.
In a statement last Friday, Ukraine’s Council of Churches and Religious Organisations said that up to 5000 civilians had died so far in the besieged port city, and again appealed to member-states of EU, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to introduce a no-fly zone over the country, or provide it with “modern air-defence systems and fighter jets” to protect civilians from bombs and missile strikes.
Speaking in Kyiv on Monday, Metropolitan Epiphany branded the latest civilian mass killings a “sign of genocide”, and warned that the “victory of tyranny” over his country would “become a new circle of hell on earth”.
“The whole world now sees what we have long known: the enemy does not just wish to achieve certain officially stated goals, no matter how absurd and false: the enemy came to our land to erase the very identity of the Ukrainian people, to de-Ukrainianise Ukraine,” the Metropolitan told a congregation at the funeral of a murdered photographer and filmmaker, Maksym Levin.
“Yet the victory already achieved by the Ukrainian people is getting closer every day — a moral and military victory.”
Leader comment: Putin, the war criminal
Paul Vallely: Prosecution’s hard work begins now
Letters: Lack of nuclear ban failed Ukraine