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Missile strike on Odesa Cathedral leads to angry recriminations

25 July 2023


Church personnel inspect damage inside the Odesa Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa, Ukraine, on Sunday

Church personnel inspect damage inside the Odesa Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa, Ukraine, on Sunday

UKRAINIAN and Russian church leaders have traded bitter accusations after missile attacks at the weekend severely damaged the historic Cathedral of the Transfiguration in the port city of Odesa.

“You talk about the unity of ‘Holy Rus’ in your sermons, but completely destroy this with your actions, as the Russian army wreaks havoc and open war on the Ukrainian state’s sovereign territory with your personal blessing,” the Vicar-General of Odesa, Archbishop Viktor (Bykov), told Patriarch Kirill in an open letter, also addressed to the Russian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod.

“The Ukrainian Orthodox Church [UOC] has had nothing in common with you for a long time, and you have now lost this and other Churches — you are a father who has sacrificed his children to destruction and death.”

The Archbishop was reacting to the overnight raids on Odesa, in which one of 19 Russian cruise missiles hit the Transfiguration Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site owned by the Moscow-linked UOC, wrecking the late-18th-century building.

A UOC statement said the Transfiguration Cathedral’s roof had collapsed in flames after the missile strikes, which damaged dozens of other city-centre buildings, leaving at least one person dead and 20 injured.

It added that the cathedral, which was destroyed in 1936 under the Soviet dictatorship of Stalin, but rededicated by Kirill himself in 2010, formed the “spiritual heart of Odesa”, and was “in no way connected to military facilities”.

The wave of attacks on the Odesa region, the main Black Sea hub in Ukraine, followed the withdrawal last week by Moscow from a grain-export deal.

Archbishop Viktor said that the UOC had announced its “complete withdrawal” from subordination to the Moscow Patriarchate in May 2022. Many of its bishops now condemned Russia’s “insane aggression”, as well as the “barbaric seizure” of UOC dioceses in Ukraine’s “temporarily occupied territories”.

The Russian Orthodox Church expressed no regret for the destruction of the cathedral. Instead, it reprinted a Defence Ministry statement on its main website, which blamed “illiterate actions” by Ukrainian air defences. In a sermon on Sunday, Patriarch Kirill urged Russian troops to maintain “patience and courage” in their continued assault on the country.

A similar verbal assault came from Metropolitan Leonid (Gorbachev), the new Russian Orthodox Exarch in Africa, who accused UOC leaders of betraying the Moscow Patriarchate for a “godless nationalist gang”. He said that Archbishop Viktor’s letter read “as if written by a girl”.

“It is impossible to read this nonsense with goodwill and sound memory, knowing how many of you now dishonour and curse the Patriarch,” Metropolitan Leonid said in a open reply.

“Far from demanding anything from the Patriarch, you can only ask. . . Like miserable mice, you huddle in a corner while your voice is ignored and your leaders spinelessly surrender their flock for fear of Jews.”

The attack was condemned as “another Kremlin war crime” by the high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, and deplored by the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, who described it in a Sunday statement as “yet another attack” on a World Heritage site “in violation of the 1954 Hague Convention”.

The director-general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, whose organisation has verified damage to 116 Ukrainian religious sites, said that a mission would be sent to Odesa for a “preliminary damage assessment”.

She warned, however, that the “brazen attack” had violated Russia’s international obligations to protect “cultural property during armed conflict”, and would be liable to war-crimes charges.

Bishop Vitaliy Kryvytskyi, who chairs the Roman Catholic Church’s church-state commission, said in a Facebook post that he had personally inspected the missile damage while on a home visit to Odesa, and that it would “take a very long time for inhabitants to overcome their hatred of Russians”.

In a social-media message on Monday, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said that his government would raise Moscow’s actions in “systematically destroying the Orthodox Church in Ukraine” at a forthcoming UN Security Council session.

The Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, told a Spanish newspaper that he doubted that the cathedral had been the “target” of Russia’s missile attack, but said that the “continuous risk to everyone and everything” remained “the reality of the war against Ukraine”.

On Sunday, the Russian TASS news agency said that the Pope had asked Patriarch Kirill to meet him in the “neutral transit space” of a Moscow airport at the start or end of his visit to Mongolia (31 August to 4 September), although this had not been confirmed by the Vatican earlier this week.

In a message to his flock, the Orthodox Metropolitan Agafangel (Pashkovsky) of Odesa said that his cathedral’s destruction had “wounded the heart of every citizen”.

He continued: “Whatever the purpose of the shameful so-called ‘special military operation’, it cannot justify the killing and violence, destruction and forced flights — this is a real genocide of the Ukrainian people.

“There is only one answer: the forces of hell have declared open war against Orthodoxy and God’s highest gift, human life. Nothing good will come for those who unleashed this bloody, accursed war.”

More than 300 UOC priests and bishops have signed a petition, due to be presented on Wednesday to Metropolitan Onufriy, demanding a “final break with the Russian Orthodox Church” in the light of the “barbaric destruction” of the cathedral, and the “genocide of Ukrainians by Russian occupiers”.

“Only this will save our Church and give it the moral right to continue existing in the Ukrainian state,” the petition, published by Ukraine’s Glavcom agency, said.


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