A clergyman holds a religious picture during a rally by pro-European Union protesters in Kiev, Ukraine. Ukrainians are finding it hard to understand why the world is paying so little attention to the conflict in Ukraine. CNS photo/Gleb Garanich, Reuters

A nation at war, Ukraine turns to the Lord

  • September 10, 2016

With 10,000 dead in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, Russian tanks and missile systems massing on the eastern border, two million internally displaced Ukrainians, Crimea already under Russian rule and the Ukrainian Black Sea fleet sunk or stolen, Fr. Peter Galadza is putting his trust in the politics of the beatitudes.

Along with about 1.2 million other Ukrainian-Canadians, Galadza understands just how easily his country is sacrificed on the altar of power politics and strategic interests.

“If you’re a poor country, you’re going to be sacrificed,” Galadza said. “But you see, from a Ukrainian Catholic perspective, this gets frustrating. Because throughout their history Ukrainian Catholics have frequently had no one to turn to, except the Church. They have tended to believe — sometimes naively, but they nonetheless believe — that an institution grounded in the politics of the beatitudes will sooner or later step up to the plate and defend the underdog.”

On Dec. 5, 1994 the Russian Federation, the United States and Great Britain signed the Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed Ukraine’s security and its borders in exchange for Ukraine signing onto the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear weapons state. When the Soviet empire collapsed, Ukraine found itself in possession of an enormous nuclear arsenal. By giving up the weapons, Ukraine had hoped for a peaceful, independent future.

No such luck. For more than two years Ukraine has instead faced Russian soldiers in its territory trying to break off pieces of the country in the name of protecting and uniting Russian speakers.

“It is a hot war where people are dying every day, where Russian forces are shelling Ukrainian territory every day, Ukrainian soldiers are dying and being wounded,” said Orest Zakydalsky, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress’ senior policy advisor. “We are working constantly to keep this an issue that the public is aware of.”

When the perogies are served and the dancers line up for North America’s largest Ukrainian cultural festival in Toronto’s Bloor West Village Sept. 16-18, the dancers, singers and cooks will be thinking about their bleeding nation on the eastern edge of Europe — even if they are two, three or four generations removed from immigration to Canada.

Sunday morning, the Toronto Ukrainian Festival will open with an ecumenical prayer service where Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Ukrainians will bow their heads for their missing cousins, aunts and grandparents who have been displaced, injured or killed in the fighting.

“It can’t help but run through the festival,” said festival volunteer Sonia Holiad. “It’s not something you can ignore.”

But many Ukrainian-Canadians find themselves wondering why the media can’t muster much interest in Ukraine’s war.

“It really has slipped from the headlines. People might think that everything is hunky dory and it’s not,” said Fr. Andriy Chirovksy. “It is very frustrating precisely because we are constantly aware of how disastrous the situation is and how dangerous it continues to be.”

Ukraine’s war with Russia ought to matter to everybody, said Galadza.

“Is no one able to connect the dots?” he asked. “How the hell are you going to convince people in the Middle East not to seek nuclear weapons? How are you going to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal when this is how a country is treated when it does give up its nuclear arsenal?”

A false picture of the war as a mostly internal conflict between an Orthodox, Russian-speaking eastern half and a Catholic, Ukrainian-speaking, Europe-oriented western half drives Chirovsky nuts.

“To say that Ukraine is a Catholic west and an Orthodox east is completely inaccurate. I mean the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church has parishes in (pro-Russian stronghold) Donetsk. We have monasteries in Donetsk. We have an exarchate in Donetsk. We have a bishop for Donetsk. It’s ridiculous to speak in those terms… 60 per cent of the Ukrainian troops on the Ukrainian government side are Russian speaking.”

A 2006 survey by the Razumkov Centre, a Ukrainian NGO, found 62 per cent of people living in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern provinces considered Ukraine their “fatherland” against just 20 per cent who identified with Russia.

The religious dimension of the war is hard to avoid, but even harder to understand. The biggest church in Ukraine is the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. It has 12,000 parishes, 45 dioceses, 186 monasteries, 20 schools and colleges and perhaps as many as 10,000 clergy. Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill is seen as a political asset by Vladimir Putin’s regime, and Kirill has spoken about the Russian Orthodox Church working in harmony (a semi-theological concept in Orthodoxy called “symphonia”) with Putin. Kirill even called Putin’s rise to power a “miracle of God.”

If Putin is going to be the protector of Russian language, heritage and culture worldwide, there’s no way to separate any of that culture or heritage from Russia’s Orthodox Christian history. But in Ukraine, Russian Orthodox parishes are beginning to distance themselves from Moscow. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Metropolitan Onufri, has stepped back from Patriarch Kirill’s more stridently pro-Russia statements.

Russian Orthodox in Canada and the United States are tired of Russian nationalist tirades from the pulpit and are seeking refuge in Ukrainian Catholic parishes, said Chirovsky.

“They’ve come to me and they’ve said, ‘I just can’t go there any more. Constant harrangues from the pulpit against those Ukrainians… Can I come to your church?’ ”

As a parish pastor, Chirovsky doesn’t wall the liturgy off from politics.

“At every liturgy I pray and I pray out loud, I give a petition, that our brothers and sisters in Ukraine might be freed from external aggression and from internal corruption,” he said.

In Ukraine for a global synod of Ukrainian Catholic bishops, Eparch Ken Nowakowski of New Westminster, B.C., stumbled upon a different religious response to the war. He was visiting a small town where he had gone to ordain a deacon who will eventually serve as a priest in his diocese. There, he was invited by local women to pray the rosary with them for victims of the war.

“For the last three years, every day at 8 p.m. these women gather,” Nowakowski told The Catholic Register. “I found out that they’re not unique. In most of the villages there are some form of every-day prayers for the people who are at the front. It was very moving, very intense for me. You can see that these women — some of them have relatives at the front, some of them don’t — nevertheless, this is their way of contributing to those who are at the front.”

Nowakowski finds that in Ukraine it is easy to see past the artificial divisions of Ukrainians into Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers. The Church — Catholic and Orthodox — finds itself faced with the wounds of a nation as they are manifested in families and communities.

“I think that the religious leaders are very much, I think on all sides, trying to support those people who are at war, support those people who have been wounded,” he said. “There’s been around 10,000 men killed in the war and their bodies are returned to western Ukraine. If you consider that your average parish priest then will be preparing for the funeral, will have to deal with the funeral. And, as is the tradition in the Ukrainian churches, both Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic, there’s a nine-day service after the funeral and then a 40-day service and then a one-year anniversary — those priests are very much affected, as are the parishioners, by what’s going on.”

At the synod in Lviv, Nowakowski was presenting a new program called “The Vibrant Parish.” It fits into the Year of Mercy with a theme of diakonia, service to others.

“In many ways this program is essential, especially for our parishes in eastern Ukraine and in those affected areas,” Nowakowski said. “Because it’s what we do as a family parish. We have the Word of God, we have liturgy, we have prayer, we need leadership. So we see ourselves in this framework.”

Ukraine should be an example for the world, said Galadza.

“We’ve never had an empire. We have never invaded other countries. We don’t have some kind of jingoistic, national pride that would incline us to hold on to nuclear weaponry,” he said. “It’s the fact that Ukrainians have frequently had no one else to turn to that they turn to our Lord. It’s that fact that I think can teach us a lot in Canada.”

Ukraine’s not a perfect country. Corrupt billionaires and politicians have too readily directed their poor country for personal gain, said Chirovsky. But ordinary Ukrainians “simply want to have their human dignity back,” he said.

“They want to live in peace, in an independent Ukraine which has never waged an offensive war against anyone,” he said. “That’s one thing I’m very proud of as a Ukrainian Christian. Ukraine has never waged an offensive war in all of its history. It’s always been defensive. Ukraine has not tried to acquire anyone else’s territory. I’m proud of that as a Christian.”

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