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Kyiv rejects ‘handover’ of Ukrainian prisoners as Russian stunt

16 June 2023

Russian Orthodox Church claims credit for transfer


Rescue worker carries a man out of a flooded area near Kherson on Monday, eight days after the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam

Rescue worker carries a man out of a flooded area near Kherson on Monday, eight days after the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam

THE Russian Orthodox Church has claimed credit for arranging the transfer of a group of captured Ukrainian soldiers to Hungary, although the Kyiv government denied knowledge of the handover and dismissed the gesture as a publicity stunt.

“At the request of the Hungarian side, a group of Ukrainian prisoners of war of Transcarpathian origin who participated in the hostilities was transferred to Hungary,” the Moscow Patriarchate said.

“This action was prompted by motives of Christian philanthropy . . . with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, with mediation by the Russian Orthodox Church and within a framework of inter-Church cooperation.”

Confirming the handover, the Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister, Zsolt Semjén, who is also Minister for Hungarian communities abroad, nationality policy, church policy, and church diplomacy, told his country’s ATV television channel that the 11 Ukrainian prisoners-of-war “owed their freedom to the Russian Orthodox Church”.

Andrey Yusov, of the Ukrainian Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate, told the RBC-Ukraine media network that his government had received no notification of the move from Hungary or the International Red Cross, however, and accused Russian church leaders of using the story to “restore their reputation and improve their image”.

He said: “The so-called Russian Orthodox Church operates on the territory of the aggressor state, and no other official Russian Federation structures have published data on this alleged transfer of our POWs. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation continues using the most sensitive topics, including the fate of prisoners of war, not to resolve humanitarian issues and meet international obligations, but for conducting information and psychological operations.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine has reported small initial gains in its campaign to recapture Russian-occupied territory, and as efforts continued to help 17,000 people left without food or water after last week’s destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station on the River Dnipro (News, 9 June).

Preaching in Kyiv on Sunday, the head of Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), joined other religious leaders in urging donations for the displaced and homeless, blaming the “great tragedy”, which left at least seven UOC churches flooded, on “the war waged by Russia against Ukraine”.

The president of Ukraine’s RC Caritas organisation, Tetiana Stawnychy, described the destruction of the dam as a “crisis within a crisis”, with uncertain consequences for agricultural production and the country’s critical Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

Speaking on Tuesday in Vienna, she said that the number of residents affected by the catastrophe was steadily increasing, alongside the 18 million Ukrainians already displaced by the Russian invasion. Remaining water supplies had been contaminated by oil and dead animals.

Kyiv media reported that more than 3600 homes were still flooded by midweek on the Ukrainian-controlled right (west) bank of the Dnipro, and that Russian forces had fired on rescue boats and blown up a smaller dam on the Mokri Yaly River, in an effort to slow Ukrainian military advances.

A 72-year-old Orthodox priest was killed by a shell at his church in Bilozerska, and at least 11 civilians were reported dead and 28 injured on Tuesday, after an overnight Russian missile attack on Kryvyi Rih, the southern home town of President Zelensky.

In a message on Tuesday, Metropolitan Yefrem of Kryvyi Rih & Nikopol, an Archbishop in the UOC, said that the town’s civilian inhabitants had been struck by an “insidious and devastating enemy” while “resting in their homes”, and urged local people to stand united and pray “for victory for the Ukrainian army, our native city, our families and loved ones”.

The Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, accused “Russian criminals” of “simultaneously committing ecocide and genocide”, and compensating for battlefield failures by “shelling peaceful towns and villages”.

In a national message on Monday, he said that he regretted that the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international organisations had failed to react to the Kakhovka dam disaster, but vowed that Ukrainians were “increasingly united, banding together and helping each other”.

Hungarian media said there was still no confirmation this week that Ukrainian POWs had been sent to Hungary. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has supported a Russian Orthodox presence in his country, and vetoed European Union sanctions against Patriarch Kirill in summer 2022.

In a message for Russia Day, on Monday of last week, Patriarch Kirill thanked President Putin for supporting his Church’s “many projects and initiatives” to nurture spiritual, moral, and patriotic values, and said that the “Orthodox spiritual tradition” would “guarantee true prosperity, solidarity and unity” for the Russian people.

Preaching at the weekend in the new Church of the Ascension, in Tobolsk, the Patriarch said Western countries had been ready to go to war against Russia to ensure that it followed the same path of “defiantly destroying Christian values and declaring there is no God”, and said that his Church was praying for President Putin and the country’s armed forces as they resisted those “taking up arms to destroy Holy Russia”.

At the weekend, Estonia became the latest Western country to renew an entry ban on Patriarch Kirill for co-instigating the attack on Ukraine and “complicity in human-rights violations”.

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