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Russian forces face new condemnations

03 March 2023


Children’s shoes are abandoned amid the rubble of a school in Kharkiv, Ukraine, that was badly damaged when the first clashes took place between the Russian and Ukrainian forces one year ago last Friday

Children’s shoes are abandoned amid the rubble of a school in Kharkiv, Ukraine, that was badly damaged when the first clashes took place between the R...

RUSSIAN occupation forces are suppressing non-Orthodox religious communities in Ukraine and abducting children for re-education, according to data from human-rights organisations released on the anniversary of the invasion (News, 24 February).

“This conflict has led to the persecution and oppression of Evangelical leaders and believers in Ukraine; during the last year, Evangelical pastors have been arrested, interrogated, tortured, and expelled from their towns,” the British-based organisation Release International said on Tuesday.

“Church buildings have been confiscated and used for purposes that fit the agenda of the occupying forces. Christians have received harsher treatment at Russian military checkpoints, while Evangelical Christians living in both occupied and contested areas of Ukraine are experiencing severe oppression and fighting for their survival.”

The UN said that thousands of Ukrainian children had ended up in Russian care-facilities, and faced indoctrination by Chechen fighters and other “educators”.

“Some people who escaped from eastern Ukraine admitted they gave up their children, trusting Russian promises to ensure their safety; in the face of bombs, they had no choice”, Vatican Radio quoted the UN High Representative for Refugees as confirming on Monday.

“Human-rights organisations say traces of centres for children and youth have been found near the front, in Crimea and in distant Kamchatka. . . Humanitarian organisations are calling on the UN to launch an international investigation.”

The allegations were made as both invading troops continued attempts to capture the eastern town of Bakhmut and Russia claimed to have shot down several Ukrainian drones targeting its energy infrastructure.

In weekend messages, the Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said that his countrymen had “not always been satisfied” by responses to their requests for help, and that many lives could have been saved by swifter international support.

Ukrainians would, nevertheless, “stay together, praying, working, and striving for victory”, Archbishop Shevchuk said, knowing that Russia had “not achieved a single goal set one year ago”.

Speaking at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral on Sunday, however, Patriarch Kirill told children from Ukraine’s Donbas region that they now shared a “huge responsibility to preserve Russia, her freedom and independence” by keeping the Donbas “part of the Russian world and Russian land”.

“We know what difficult attitudes to our country have been awakened recently by evil human will — we should turn our eyes to the Lord, asking his help for our people, our authorities, and our army,” the Patriarch told a congregation at Moscow’s Epiphany Cathedral on Tuesday evening.

“To those who have not yet been strengthened in faith, who still have doubts on the way to God, I say all must be left in the past. We must all embark on the path that led our pious ancestors to victory”.

In a national message, the Primate of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, the OCU, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), said that Moscow had aimed at the “final destruction of Ukrainian statehood and identity”, and that the country had been miraculously saved when most believed its struggle “seemed brave but inevitably doomed to defeat”.

He said that Moscow’s “ideology of a Russian space” should be “condemned in the same way as Nazism, Bolshevism, and other misanthropic concepts justifying evil”. President Putin and Patriarch Kirill had “blood on their hands that cannot be washed away”, and should be tried for war crimes, he said.

“Like David against Goliath, our people have stood against the tyranny of evil and already won a moral victory, thanks to their own bravery and the extraordinary support of the world’s democratic countries,” Metropolitan Epiphany said.

“We observe new manifestations of the extreme cynicism with which the Kremlin tyranny makes use of religious themes and slogans, and leaders of religious communities it controls to support its evil. There is no moral justification for the absolutely shameful position of the Moscow Patriarchate and its head Kyrill Gundyaev, who, instead of raising their voice against this insane war with Ukraine, bless the aggression and justify the criminals.”

Among other messages, Roman Catholic bishops in Europe said that Ukrainians had a right to defend themselves against a “brutal and unjustifiable aggression” which had “shaken the foundations of European and global peace architecture, filling the whole of humanity with fear”.

They urged European leaders to maintain “unity in solidarity with Ukraine”, and welcomed international efforts to document war crimes “with a view to ensuring accountability for the perpetrators”.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) said in a statement that the “fundamental basis of international humanitarian and human-rights law — and the UN Charter itself” had been “challenged and undermined” by Russia’s attack. It added that Ukraine’s “territorial integrity and internationally recognised borders” must be respected, and those “whose actions unleashed this disaster upon Ukraine and the world finally held accountable”.

“The humanitarian impacts of this man-made catastrophe extend far beyond Ukraine’s borders, bringing suffering to many millions more around the world, particularly in poor and food-insecure countries,” the statement continued.

“There can be no legitimate political, moral or religious justification for such wholesale destruction of lives, livelihoods and communities. We particularly reject any misuse of theology and religious authority that seeks to justify it.”

In a website commentary for the anniversary, Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church (UOC) said that the invasion had been “immediately condemned” by its leader, Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), and Holy Synod, adding that UOC members had “engaged in front-line fighting, collecting humanitarian aid, caring for the wounded and praying for Ukraine”.

The commentary condemned current “rhetoric” by Ukrainian politicians and media against the UOC. It said that the Church was “open to dialogue with the state authorities”, while condemning “collaboration with the enemies”.

Pressure against the UOC has continued, however, with several senior prelates facing trial and loss of citizenship for collaboration, and with government-backed legislation to ban the Church now close to being enacted in parliament.

On Monday, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church said that it would suspend prayers for Patriarch Kirill, and avoid links with Metropolitan Leonid (Gorbachev), the head of the new Russian Orthodox exarchate in Africa, in response to the Moscow Patriarchate’s “non-canonical actions”.

In a further sign of toughening stances, the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, criticised Russia’s suspension last week of a nuclear-arms treaty with the United States. It said that a “just peace” required its withdrawal from Ukrainian territory.

In an interview with the Jesuit magazine America, Archbishop Gallagher also rejected Putin’s claim, in an anniversary speech, that the West had sought “the downfall or destruction of Russia”. He believed the Russian president had “miscalculated” in assuming he could “subjugate the Ukrainian people”.

Commenting on claims about the mistreatment of religious minorities by Russian forces, Ukraine’s Religious Information Service reported on Tuesday that an Orthodox priest from St George’s, in Bakhmut, had been deported with his parishioners, while a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been given long prison and penal-colony sentences in Crimea.

Vatican Radio reported evidence that 6000 Ukrainian children were currently held at more than 40 separate detention centres, but said that there were “serious indications” that the numbers were “much higher”, and that young people had been taken from Ukrainian orphanages and schools.

In a report this week, UNICEF said that almost eight million Ukrainian children were “living in conditions of war”; 3.5 million needed “urgent humanitarian help”; and 1.5 million were facing “traumatic and depressive disorders”.

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