UKRAINIAN church leaders have urged citizens to keep up their spirits despite the failure of a ceasefire proffered by President Putin for last weekend’s Eastern Christmas.
“We are praying for the souls of innocent victims of the Russian attack,” the Primate of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church (OCU), Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), said; “for physical and mental healing of those injured and maimed by Russian bombs, bullets, and rockets; and for protection and help for displaced people who, like Christ and his earthly parents, have left their native land.
“Evil and its consequences are man’s choice, not God’s, and all the evil and suffering we see results from someone using the divine gift of freedom for a selfish, unrighteous purpose.”
Metropolitan Epiphany was preaching on Sunday after celebrating Christmas in the Dormition Cathedral of the Pechersk Lavra monastery, Kyiv, parts of which were handed over to the OCU by Ukrainian officials at the beginning of January.
He said that thousands of Ukrainians had lost their lives, and millions had been forced to flee, like Mary and Joseph, to escape “indescribable suffering” brought to their country by “the newest Herod and his embittered servants”.
The Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said in a message on Tuesday that Christmas had brought new hopes for a “victorious New Year”, and that Ukrainians were “living, fighting, and celebrating the Saviour’s coming into the world” despite Russia’s latest tactic of shelling “places where citizens usually congregate, such as markets”.
He continued: “We are observing a powerful escalation of the military confrontation by the Russian occupier — especially against front-line towns and villages, wherever he reaches with his murderous weapons. But Christ wishes to take upon himself our pains and sufferings, our fears and weaknesses, and our torments.”
Ukrainian military commanders said that Moscow’s forces had stepped up their offensive this week against the key eastern towns of Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Lyman, and Soledar, and warned that fresh Russian troops were being readied for a significant drive, possibly against Kyiv.
President Zelensky insisted that his forces were holding their ground, however, as the European Union prepared a tenth package of sanctions against Moscow, and several NATO countries, including Britain and the United States, confirmed plans to supply tanks and armoured vehicles.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government continues moves against Orthodox communities claiming loyalty to the Moscow Patriarchate. These face prohibition under legislation passing through the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, in Kiev.
Ukrainian media reported that the citizenship of two bishops and 11 other clergy had been suspended after recent raids on UOC properties, and the Rector of Pochaiv Theological Seminary had been fined for “inciting religious enmity”. Metropolitan Varsonofy (Stoliar) of Vinnitsa-Bar faced up to eight years in prison for “publicly justifying Russian armed aggression” and “calling for the seizure of power and change of state borders”.
In a statement on Tuesday, the UOC Holy Synod’s legal department urged an official expert group reviewing the UOC’s management statutes to replace several “biased and hostile” members with “religious scholars from international scientific institutions”.
Preaching on Sunday in the Dormition Cathedral, in the Kremlin, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow said that Ukraine was experiencing “the same madness” and “demonic possession” as Russia after the 1917 Revolution, when a new Church, “artificially created by godless authorities”, had seized and defiled places of worship belonging to “the genuine, grace-filled Russian Orthodox Church”, using “all the forces and repressive machinery of the State”.
He said that Russians would pray for “pious Ukrainian people” who were already becoming “martyrs and confessors”, and for bishops “faithful to canonical truth”. He vowed that Ukraine would soon be rid of “schismatics fulfilling their evil, devilish will”.
He continued: “Then as now, behind the splits there is state power — behind the schisms an intention to weaken and destroy the Orthodox Church.” His pre-Christmas call for a ceasefire was dismissed as deception by Ukrainian officials.
“But the spiritual unity of Rus will be restored, along with Orthodoxy’s canonical order in Ukraine. . . All the teachers and creators of schisms, all those disguised hierarchs whose appearance does not correspond to their rank, will be punished,” Patriarch Kirill said.
Speaking in St Peter’s Square on Sunday, the Pope deplored Ukrainian sufferings during a “Christmas at war, without light, without heat”, and urged prayer “for mothers who have lost soldier sons, both Ukrainian and Russian”.