Religion goes to war in Ukraine | International

In the premises of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Lviv, in western Ukraine, lives a woman welcomed by Bishop Macarius. Her name is Nina Nemerovska and she is a language teacher at the Kharkov Polytechnic University Military Academy. This city, 800 kilometers from Lviv, is suffering one of the most violent sieges of the war. She is 70 years old, she is petite and wears a red beret that covers half her head. Nemerovska has been a prominent militant to separate the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from obedience to the Patriarch of Moscow. “In Kharkov, those who mark the buildings to be bombed by the invader’s planes are faithful neighbors of the Russian Church,” says this philologist.

Faith in Ukraine has a prominent weight in national identity and also plays its part in the conflict. In the eastern half of Ukraine, from Kiev to Donetsk, the believing population is overwhelmingly Orthodox. This is divided in turn between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the one dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Church became official as independent from Moscow in 2019, after it was recognized as such by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, the ecumenical leader of all Orthodox Churches. The Russian Church broke with Constantinople, with the universal house of the Orthodox.

Patriarch Kiril of Moscow acts as the spiritual arm of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultranationalism. His slogans in favor of war and against the enemies of the so-called “Russian world” have been constant in recent years. The 2014 war in Donbas between pro-Russian separatist forces and the Ukrainian state further aggravated the gap between the two national communities. The presence of Russian culture in eastern Ukraine is significant, also religiously. The most important Orthodox temple in Ukraine, the Kiev Caves monastery, owes allegiance to Kiril. For the power in Moscow, both earthly and divine, this place is the origin of the Slavic people.

Several people pray in the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, in Lviv, Ukraine.
Several people pray in the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, in Lviv, Ukraine. Jaime Villanueva

Nemerovska denounces that Russian nationalist propaganda from Orthodox pulpits in Donbas, Kharkov or Odessa has been key for many Ukrainians of Russian culture to believe that they were in danger and embrace megalomania putinian. The children of God are in conflict and the words that are heard in the temples are not always of peace.

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The Candlemas Orthodox Parish is a stone’s throw from the Lviv Film Library. In its auditorium, volunteers have organized courses to learn how to use weapons. Some participants stop for a moment in the parish to pray. Their pastor, Andrei Tiiachcenko, blesses them and asks for food and medicine for the military. His opinion of the Russians is marked by hate. Asked if Russian public opinion in favor of Putin would criticize the military invasion if there were images of destroyed Orthodox churches, Tiiachcenko dismisses it: “Most Russians don’t care, they are not believers, they have no morals. They only believe in alcohol and violence.”

In the western half of Ukraine, with Lviv as a reference city, the vast majority of the faithful are Greek Catholics, a branch of Catholicism of the Byzantine rite and obedient to the Pope of Rome. In the region they are the most active with patriotic and religious propaganda. A prayer is hung on the statue of the Virgin Mary in Miskevicha Square for passers-by to recite, asking God to protect “those who defend Ukraine at the front with a rifle day and night.” Not far from there, another poster asks for a prayer “for the unique Church of Ukraine, for the victory of good over evil.”

Parishes in Lviv have multiplied the number of masses they celebrate. Where the arreón that faith has given in time of war is most evident is in the church of San Pedro and San Pablo. It is the Greek-Catholic military church of the Ukrainian Army and where the soldiers come to be blessed. Their priests are also military chaplains. On one side of this baroque marvel built for the Jesuits in the 17th century is a banner with the face of Christ and the Ukrainian flag nailed to a birch wood cross. At the foot of the cross is shredded military equipment from an attack by pro-Russian forces on a Ukrainian motorized battalion in Lugansk. The banner was the symbol of this battalion. Next to it are the portraits of fifty deceased soldiers. The masses in San Pedro and San Nicolás end with cheers for Ukraine and the improvised intonation by the attendees of a traditional military song in which Saint George and the Virgin are asked to help the troops “to fight evil”.

Roman, a priest at the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, in Lviv, Ukraine, checks the food and aid that the faithful have been leaving during the week for the refugees.
Roman, a priest at the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, in Lviv, Ukraine, checks the food and aid that the faithful have been leaving during the week for the refugees. Jaime Villanueva

Something that differentiates the temples of Lviv from those of Spain is the large presence of young people. In the church of Santa Olga and Santa Elisabet, Yuri Kusma filled out a prayer request for military units at the front on Sunday. Their names were read at one of the masses that day. Kusma is a bodyguard for a law firm. He does not conceive of another Ukraine than the Christian one: “Whether Catholic or Orthodox, it is the same God and the same country.”

In the cathedral of Saint George, patron saint of Lviv, Anton Scherbak proposes another approach to religious devotion in Ukraine. Aged 33 and an actor by profession, he was evacuated from Kharkov to Lviv after eight days of shelling. He introduces himself as an atheist and explains that he has come to the cathedral to admire its architecture. Scherbak has no doubt that the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of that protective State caused a collective anguish that a good part of the citizenry tried to replace with “not very rational beliefs.” Scherbak agrees with Nemerovska that in eastern Ukraine, the Russian Church “is a manipulation machine in the pay of the Kremlin.” He also concedes that the Ukrainian Church plays an identity role that he claims to understand in part: “Before the war, I would never have said that I could love my country. What he wanted was to go to England to study. Now I have changed.”

Alexi Khreptak, a priest at the Candlemas Orthodox Church in Lviv, Ukraine.
Alexi Khreptak, a priest at the Candlemas Orthodox Church in Lviv, Ukraine.jaime villanueva

The stained glass windows of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption are protected with plates to prevent possible bombing from destroying them. In one of its rooms, parishioners kiss an icon of the Virgin that recalls the miraculous protection that she granted to the Ukrainian Cossacks against the invasions of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. The deacon of the cathedral, Yuri Fediv, underlines the Ukrainian devotion to the Virgin Mary as a symbol of peace. Asked if they communicate with the local churches of obedience to the Patriarch of Moscow, Fediv answers bluntly: “We have no relationship.”

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