A church destroyed by a Russian attack on the village of Bohorodychne in Ukraine's Donetsk region is pictured Feb. 13, 2024. OSV News photo/Vladyslav Musiienko, Reuters

Good and bad: alive, yes, but toll is great

  • February 22, 2024

The Archbishop of Kyiv brought “good news” from the “purgatory” of Ukraine via a videoconference last week organized by Aid to the Church in Need.

“We are alive! This is a miracle,” Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk told those online for the Feb. 14 event, 10 days ahead of the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Shevchuk, who is also Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, credited a global outpouring of aid for preventing “the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe after the Second World War” from becoming an even worse debacle.

“Nobody in Ukraine died because of hunger, thirst or other humanitarian cause,” the Archbishop said. “Human solidarity worldwide is efficient and, especially in the last year, we were able to withstand (the crisis).”

That is where the good news ends.

Shevchuk and Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine, both spelled out the toll 10 years of conflict have taken on Ukrainians. They called the 2022 Russian onslaught against Ukraine the “full scale invasion” to distinguish it from the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the fight in the Donbas. Kulbokas said calling it a 10-year conflict isn’t theoretical.

“Frequently I meet family members of prisoners of war and civil prisoners. Some of them have lived in captivity for already seven or eight years,” he said.

“The situation, especially of those who live on the frontline or in captivity, is more than a purgatory. It’s unbelievable,” he added.

The Lithuanian-born Vatican diplomat was the only ambassador to Ukraine who remained in Kyiv at the time of the 2022 invasion. The bishops expressed their pastoral concern for families and particularly for the children of Ukraine.

Accurate numbers of the war dead, injured and captured are difficult to establish. Kyiv does not disclose official figures and Moscow is believed to provide inaccurate statistics. Shevchuk said more than 500 children are officially registered as having been killed and more than 1,200 children have been wounded since February 2022. 

Of grave concern are the Ukrainian children deported to Russia.

“Officially, the Ukrainian state declared that almost 20,000 Ukrainian children were kidnapped by the Russians. But Russians have reported different numbers,” Shevchuk said.

As many as 800,000 Ukrainian children may have been kidnapped, he said.

“The children in Ukraine are the most vulnerable part of our society and it is why the very unique diplomatic mission of Cardinal (Matteo) Zuppi was especially (about) paying attention to the Ukrainian children.”

Zuppi, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, acting as an envoy of Pope Francis, visited Ukraine for high-level talks June 5-6, 2023.

All aspects of the lives of children in eastern Ukraine have been affected by the conflict.

In regular communication with clergy from eastern Ukraine, the bishops have been told that in the regions of Kharkiv, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia, “almost all the schools are closed for already four years. At the beginning it was COVID, now it’s the full-scale invasion. Some schoolboys and girls know there are schools only from online teaching. In cities like Kharkiv, there are projects of building underground kindergartens and underground schools.”

The Russian suppression of freedom of religion and worship in eastern and southern Ukraine is also a concern to the bishops.

Kulbokas spoke specifically of two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests, Fr. Ivan Levitsky and Fr. Bohdan Geleta, who have been captives of Russian forces since November 2022.

“We don’t know exactly where they are kept, in what situation they’re kept, but mentally, psychologically we are with them. Every morning, we start our prayers thinking about them because they have no such possibility to celebrate the liturgy.”

Human rights activist Yevhen Zakharov of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group recently reported that Levitsky may have been illegally transported to a Russian prison and that Bohdan is in a Crimean facility.

Shortly after the priests were captured, Shevchuk said he had received “the sad news that our priests are being tortured without mercy.”

Shevchuk was asked if the Russian occupation means the return of the “underground church.”

“In the occupied territory in the eastern and southern Ukraine, the very possibility to exist and to be with our people for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is getting more difficult. Right now, there is no Catholic priest on that side of Ukraine,” he said.

The bishops have learned that in Donetsk people went to church every Sunday to pray even though there was no priest. A few weeks ago, that church was seized and its doors closed.

“So, people are praying in their homes if they can follow our liturgical services online. They are trying to reach their priests by phone. But the very existence of our Church is prohibited,” he said.

Regina Lynch, executive president of ACN, said the international pastoral aid organization’s Lenten campaign would be dedicated to the Ukrainian church.

“This last decade and especially the last two years has seen tremendous suffering and hardship for the Ukrainian people, but we believe there is a real danger Ukraine could be forgotten as global attention moves from one crisis to the next. We are determined that this does not happen,” Lynch said.

Shevchuk and Kulbokas remain committed, despite the destruction around them, to live and work with the people.

“We give this testimony of being close to people,” said Kulbokas, “because otherwise the politicians tend to think only in military terms and in political terms. When we work trying to save lives and to save families, to save parishes, it’s the most important work we can do because we show that at the centre it’s the person, the human person.”

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