Leaders of Ukraine’s main churches have denounced Thursday’s mass invasion by Russian forces and urged citizens to defend their country. By contrast, Russia’s Orthodox patriarch backed the action and praised those carrying it out.
“Unfortunately, this morning marked the beginning of a new page in our history, with Russia starting a full-scale war against Ukraine, the responsibility of each of us is important,” said Ukraine’s Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
“Let us be ready to defend our motherland in accordance with our capabilities and responsibilities, in the army or at our workplace, in hospitals or by providing first aid, material support or words of consolation, prayer and sacrifice... The prince of this world wins individual battles, forcing and manipulating us to believe lies and spread them. May the word of God and the supreme truth which is Christ be our help in the search for truth.”
The appeal was issued as Russian troops and tanks entered the country on several fronts after a night of missile strikes against multiple targets.
The bishops said Catholics should seek reconciliation in families, neighbourhoods and parishes, and protect their hearts “from hatred and anger”, while uniting in prayer “for the rulers of our state, our army and all those defending our homeland, for the wounded and dead, and in remembrance for those who started the war and were blinded by aggression”.
The head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic church, which combines the eastern rite with loyalty to Rome, pledged Ukrainians would “lay down their souls and bodies for freedom”, and exercise their “natural right and sacred duty” to defend their “homeland and dignity”, adding that the country’s victory would signify “the victory of God’s power over man’s meanness and audacity”.
“Once again, our country is in danger. A treacherous enemy, despite his own obligations and assurances, breaking the basic norms of international law, has set foot on Ukrainian soil as an unjust aggressor, bringing death and destruction,” Major Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk of Kiyv-Halich, said in a Thursday morning message.
“The history of the last century teaches that those who started world wars were the ones who lost them. The idolaters of war brought only destruction and decline to their own states and peoples. We believe the Lord God is with us at this historic moment. He in whose hands lies the destiny of the whole world and each person is always on the side of the victim of unjust aggression, on the side of the suffering and enslaved.”
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, launched a “special military operation” against Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday, pledging in a pre-recorded message he would “demilitarise and denazify” the country, while resisting Western efforts to “destroy our traditional values and impose their pseudo-values on us”, and to impose “degradation and degeneration, which contradict the very nature of man”.
A Kremlin spokesman said the attacks were limited to military installations. However, Ukrainian officials said civilians had also died in strikes against at least 10 cities, while Western governments promised sanctions and denounced the assault, which was condemned as “unprovoked and unjustified” by US President Joe Biden and deplored as a “death blow” to peace by the United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres.
Meanwhile, the Austrian president of Caritas-Europa, Mgr Michael Landau, said more than 1.5 million people had already been displaced during eight years of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, with 2.9 million more needing protection, and predicted the invasion would inflict a “humanitarian catastrophe of unimagined proportions”.
In a 24 February statement, Unicef warned Russia’s invasion risked “destroying whole generations” and endangering the lives of 7.5 million children, while Ukraine’s own Caritas-Spes organisation confirmed it had been forced to withdraw from front-line areas and could soon extend its evacuation of staffers.
In a message on Wednesday, Ukraine’s Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, grouping 16 Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant denominations, as well as Jewish and Muslim unions, offered to help revive dialogue and warned Putin an “aggressive war” would be a “great crime against the Almighty”.
In a separate appeal on Thursday to world leaders, the Council conceded its own efforts to “prevent the outbreak of war” had now failed, and condemned the “unprovoked attack by Russia and Belarus on Ukraine”.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s new independent Orthodox church circulated a special prayer for “defenders of the motherland”, and also appealed to the international community “to stop the aggression immediately”.
“Our common task is to repel the enemy, to protect our homeland, our future and that of new generations from the tyranny the aggressor seeks to bring with his bayonets,” the church’s 45-year-old leader, Metropolitan Epifanii Dumenko, said in a message on Thursday.
“We pray with all those at the forefront of this fight against the aggressor. It is extremely important not to succumb to possible internal provocations, to maintain order and carry out the orders of our state and military authorities.”
Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox church, which has been in dispute with the new denomination since its formation in 2018, has shown signs of serious division with the Moscow Patriarchate over Russia’s actions.
In an appeal on Thursday, its leader, Metropolitan Metropolitan Onufriy Berezovsky, urged prayers for Ukraine’s “army and our people”, and called on citizens to “forget mutual quarrels and misunderstandings”.
“Unfortunately, Russia has launched military operations against Ukraine. At this fateful time, I urge you not to panic, to be courageous and show love for your homeland and for each other,” the metropolitan said. “Defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we also appeal to the president of Russia to stop the fratricidal war immediately. The Ukrainian and Russian peoples came out of the Dnieper baptismal font, and war between these peoples is a repetition of Cain’s sin... Such a war has no justification for either God or man.”
However, the head of Russia’s Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, praised President Putin’s “high and responsible service to the people” in a message on Wednesday for Russia’s Fatherland Defenders Day, and sent “hearty congratulations” to his country’s armed forces, urging them make fuller use of military “high-tech systems”.
“Everyone is familiar with what is happening on our Fatherland’s borders, so I think our military personnel can have no doubts they have chosen a very correct path”, Patriarch Kirill told soldiers in a Moscow speech. “The strength of our armed forces, the might of the Russian army, is already a weapon that protects our people. For these weapons to be taken seriously, however, by those with bad intentions, the armed forces of our country must always be on alert.”
US sources said up to 190,000 Russian troops had been deployed on Ukraine’s borders in 84 battle groups by the start of this week, despite the arrival of US and Nato reinforcements in Eastern Europe, and have estimated that up 85,000 soldiers and civilians could die initially on both sides in a new war.
However, in a televised Monday night address, President Putin said Ukraine’s approaches to Nato had increased the dangers of “a sudden strike” against Russia, which had “every right to take retaliatory measures to ensure its own security”.
He added that modern Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia, and more precisely, Bolshevik, communist Russia” and had “never had a tradition of genuine statehood”. He accused Kiyv of “infringing the rights of believers” and “preparing a crackdown” on Orthodox Christians not linked to the new church.
The Moscow Patriarchate’s deputy director, Bishop Sava Tutonov, welcomed Putin’s address as “opening new horizons for modern Russian statehood”, adding that the president’s language had “restored the completeness of our perception of Russian history”.
However, Georgia’s Orthodox patriarch, Elias II, said in a statement his own country knew “the importance of a state’s territorial integrity” from “bitter experience”, adding that he was watching events in Ukraine with a “pained heart”.
Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion was “decisively condemned” on Thursday by the Council of Catholic Episcopates of Europe, which urged governments to “act together and decisively to place an immediate term on Russian aggression” and protect “innocent women, men and children”.
The Geneva-based World Council of Churches said its 352 member-denominations believed “dialogue based on the principles of international law and respect for established national borders” remained “the proper path” for resolving tensions over Ukraine, and demanded an “immediate end” to hostilities.
In eastern Ukraine, where a Catholic priest told The Tablet local clergy had been offered a “free choice” on whether to stay or leave by their bishops, Bishop Stanislav Shirokoradiuk of Odessa-Simferopol said in an interview with Austria’s Kathpress newsagency many people were fleeing “in fear of further attacks on civilian targets”.
A Polish parish priest in the western city of Kolomiya, Fr Michal Machnio, told Poland’s Catholic Information Agency that residents had been woken by the sound of warplanes, adding that a nearby military airbase was in flames.
A Pauline order priest in Mariupol, Fr Pawel Tomaszewski, said the Russian tactic appeared to be to spread panic and “the Ukraine is being swiftly beaten”, adding that the sound of shooting had caused widespread alarm.
Meanwhile, Franciscan priests told the Polish agency they would be staying at their communities in Lviv, Borispol and other towns, while Polish Orionists in Lviv said they would also remain to protect handicapped children in their care.
Catholic dioceses in Poland, which is already sheltering up to two million Ukrainians, pledged to make facilities available for a mass influx of refugees, following an appeal on Thursday from the Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish Bishops Conference, who also urged parishes nationwide to observe the Pope’s calls for a day of prayer and fasting on 2 March.
Poland’s Catholic University of Lublin, which helps train clergy for service in the former Soviet Union, said it was also preparing to take in refugees from the fighting, while Catholic Church leaders in Slovakia and Austria said they would also offer help to fleeing Ukrainians.