Ukraine conflict: Church reiterates calls for peace eight years on
By Fr. Benedict Mayaki SJ
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine began after pro-European Union protesters toppled the government of Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in 2014. The overthrow led to a rapid escalation of a crisis that led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 and the declaration of independence from Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of the country.
The ensuing violence in the conflict in eastern Ukraine between separatist forces and the Ukrainian military has since killed more than 14,000 people and forced an estimated 1.5 million to become internally displaced.
More recently, in October 2021, Russia began moving troops and military equipment near its border with Ukraine, sparking concerns of a potential invasion. Diplomatic efforts are ongoing in a bid to defuse the possible crisis.
The Church amid the Ukrainian experience of conflict
Interwoven with the experience of Ukrainians amid these years of conflict is the experience of the Church in Ukraine.
On Friday, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a Pontifical Foundation dedicated to providing pastoral and humanitarian assistance to the persecuted Church around the world, organized an online conference to reflect on the Church’s presence and role amid the conflict.
Themed “Ukraine: The Church’s experience through eight years of armed conflict”, the conference provided a space for religious leaders, including the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, and the Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldos Kulbokas, to share their perspectives.
At the start of the conference, Dr. Thomas Heine-Geldern, the executive president of ACN International welcomed the speakers and the participants.
He noted that ACN has been at work in Ukraine for years, providing support for the Church through projects amid the 8-year conflict, which has been further exacerbated with the Covid-19 health crisis which broke out 2 years ago. The ACN President hoped that the conference might be informative to help to illustrate what ACN and the media can do to further give a public voice to the situation of suffering in Ukraine.
Situation on ground
Major Archbishop Shevchuk expressed gratitude for the opportunity presented by the conference to share the experience of Ukrainians at this delicate and dramatic time of the country’s history.
He structured his discourse around explaining the situation from a Ukrainian perspective, how the Church and religious organizations understand their role amid the conflict, and how the Ukranian-Greek Catholic Church is responding to the situation.
He expressed the concern of many Ukrainians that the country is at the edge of a dangerous escalation of military aggression that is not just a continuation of the 8-year conflict with Russia, but a “full-scale escalation” that involves not only Ukraine but all Europe and NATO member countries. In his opinion, the threat has four dimensions: military, the war of misinformation, political escalation and the effect on the economy.
The Major Archbishop explained that the military presence at the border has sparked concern among Ukrainian citizens and authorities. Meanwhile, from an economic viewpoint, the increase in gas and fuel prices puts further strain on citizens as many struggle to pay the high prices. In addition, investors are afraid to invest in the economy and many people are at risk of losing their jobs.
Role of the Church
Notwithstanding the situation, Major Archbishop Shevchuk notes that people still look to the Church for inspiration. In fact, a recent sociological survey carried out indicated that 63% of Ukrainians consider the Church to be a reliable institution even in the face of the conflict.
The Church is playing her part in making her presence felt on many fronts. The Major Archbishop highlighted that the Ukrainian-Greek Church is actively working to develop a networking cooperation of Church communities in other to better channel efforts. He further pointed out that a recent meeting of Ukrainian bishops highlighted four important responses to the situation: prayer, solidarity with those in need, preaching hope, and the consolidation of Ukrainian society.
He went on to highlight the role of the parishes in the Church’s response to the situation, noting that the parish community is an important point of reference as many have been transformed to help with social services for people in need. Many parishes, he explained, supply food, warm clothes and offer psychological assistance services to people.
The Major Archbishop hopes that, through these actions, the Church can contribute to “say no to violence and military action as the solution of problems” and rather promote dialogue, solidarity and cooperation.
Pope Francis’ closeness to Ukraine
For his part, the Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldos Kulbokas, highlighted Pope Francis’ concern for Ukraine, and reminded everyone of the 26 January day of prayer for peace for the country called by the Holy Father.
For that occasion, Pope Francis had invited the faithful and people of goodwill to pray to the Lord to “grant that the country may grow in the spirit of brotherhood and that all hurts, fears and divisions will be overcome.”
Archbishop Kulbokas noted that the crisis is a mixture of a military-political tension, with both sides protecting their interest.
In light of this, the Church has the role of praying for peace and also for the conversion of the military and political leaders, so that they do not resort to using military force. He recalled Jesus’ words to the one who cut off the high priest’s servants’ ear, asking him to "put his sword back into its sheath."
The rest of the online conference, attended by 77 participants at its peak, was dedicated to a question-and-answer session that saw the speakers exploring different aspects of the situation and the efforts of the Ukranian/Greek Catholic Church.