CHURCHES in Ukraine have marked the first anniversary of the Russian invasion with calls to prayer and fasting, as President Putin vowed to continue his military assault, and President Biden rallied morale during visits to Kyiv and Warsaw.
“We are now witnessing a media information wave about a major Russian offensive and troop mobilisation for a second large-scale attack,” the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, which includes the main Christian denominations, as well as Jewish and Muslim leaders, said in an appeal on Monday.
“Millions of believers are praying for an end to this war every day, but the great evil at its root does not want to retreat. In these fateful times, we understand that Ukraine needs God’s power to defeat the Russian aggressor.”
The appeal was published in the run-up to Friday’s anniversary, as European Union foreign ministers discussed arms supplies, and Ukrainian fighters struggled to hold back attacks on the eastern town of Bakhmut and other Russian targets.
The appeal mentioned that “many politicians and experts” had predicted that Ukraine would fall within three days of the invasion on 24 February 2022. They now also agreed that a “miracle had happened” when numerically and technically superior forces had been held back.
“We believe this is an example of how God intervened in response to the powerful prayer for Ukraine that rose worldwide,” the council said. “The Lord sowed chaos among the enemies and took their minds away, while giving our soldiers supernatural strength and accuracy to repel the attack.”
The Primate of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, the OCU, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), also appealed for prayerful commemoration, “for Ukraine, for its soldier-defenders and peaceful residents, for victory and a just peace. . .
“In our monasteries and cathedrals, wherever there will be such an opportunity, let the Psalter be read during the day with a prayer for the victory of truth. Let us spend this day fasting and praying for our defenders, the living and dead, the soldiers and civilians who continue suffering from this invasion by the evil Russian empire.”
The Russian campaign against Ukraine began in March 2014 with the annexation of its Crimean peninsula, and separatist rebellions in its eastern Donbas region, and exploded into full-scale war a year ago, with strikes against Ukrainian military facilities and a ground invasion by Russian forces.
In a televised speech on Tuesday, President Putin blamed the United States and NATO for seeking control over territories historically belonging to Moscow, and said that the “special military operation” would protect Russian-speakers from “humiliation and genocide” and secure Ukraine’s “demilitarisation and denazification”.
Ukraine’s General Staff said at the weekend that 142,000 Russian troops had been killed since the invasion. Military casualty figures on both sides remain unverified.
UN agencies registered 18.6 million Ukrainian border crossings during 2022 — more than half to Poland — and requested a further £4.64 billion to help more than eight million refugees currently dispersed across Europe. Up to six million more people are displaced within Ukraine.
On a surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday, President Biden laid a wreath at a memorial to soldiers killed in nine years of conflict, and met Metropolitan Epiphany at St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery near by, before making a ten-hour train journey to Warsaw. There, he told a large crowd on Tuesday that the West remained committed to Ukraine and to bolstering NATO’s eastern flank against the Russian threat.
The anniversary is to be marked with prayer services and charity fund-raising around Europe. It will include a special mass for church aid organisations in the Basilica of St John Lateran, Rome.
In a Lenten letter read in churches last Sunday, Ukraine’s Roman Catholic bishops said that all citizens had “felt involved in a confrontation with great evil”, and counselled against “war fatigue, irritability, destructive anger, apathy, and hopelessness”.
Bishop Mykhailo Panochko, of Ukraine’s Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith, also called in a video message for prayers and fasting “for the Lord to drive away the enemies and heal the wounds of our long-suffering people”.
In a message on Tuesday, the Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, accused Russian forces of using illegal phosphorus shells near Kherson, and rejected calls for Ukraine to “give up certain lands to reach an agreement”.
He said: “I really shudder when I hear this, since for us in the Church it’s not about territories, but about the people who are there and must be liberated. In the 17 per cent of Ukrainian territory now occupied, there are currently no Catholic priests of any rite, since some were expelled and others imprisoned. . . No negotiation, no diplomacy or tool of dialogue, has been able to ease their suffering.”
Addressing pilgrims in Rome on Wednesday, during his weekly general audience, the Pope said that Christians should mark the “sad anniversary” of the “absurd and cruel war” by remaining “close to the tormented Ukrainian people, who continue to suffer”, and asking whether “everything possible” had been done to stop the conflict.
“The toll of dead, wounded, refugees and displaced persons, destruction, economic and social damage speaks for itself — may the Lord forgive so many crimes and so much violence,” he said. He was asked by a visiting group of Ukrainian parliamentarians to help to secure the repatriation of up to 16,000 Ukrainian children currently held in Russia.
“I appeal to those who have authority over nations to make a concrete commitment to end the conflict, to achieve a ceasefire, and to start peace negotiations. What is built on rubble will never be a true victory,” he said.
The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate confirmed last week that it had accepted five Russian Orthodox priests from Lithuania who had been dismissed for opposing the Russian invasion. A petition was circulated in Poland demanding that Metropolitan Sawa (Hrycuniak) be stripped of his honorary military rank of brigadier-general for endorsing the Moscow Patriarchate’s stance on the Ukrainian war.
Among new moves against Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, the UOC, Kyiv security officials said that incitement charges would be brought against Metropolitan Theodosy (Snigiryov) of Cherkassy & Kanev. The State Migration Service revoked the citizenship of five more bishops and archbishops.
In an appeal this week, members of the UOC and OCU urged their bishops to begin a “process of unification” towards “a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, recognised by the entire Christian Orthodox world”, beginning with a mutual recognition of sacraments and joint participation in military funerals.
“The Russian Orthodox Church is invading the canonical territory of Ukrainian Churches and blessing the occupation actions and war crimes of Russia,” the “initiative group” said.
“At this difficult time, it is extremely important to preserve the spiritual unity of the Ukrainian people, whose origins go back to the ancient Kyivan Orthodox tradition.”
In a report World Council of Churches’ website, the Institute for Religious Freedom, based in Kyiv, reported that 494 religious sites in Ukraine had been “destroyed, damaged or looted” during the Russian invasion, mostly in the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson.
The Institute said that it had also documented “targeted attacks” on religious believers by Russian military and intelligence services, “because of the Ukrainian language, belonging to a different denomination, or other manifestations of Ukrainian identity”.
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