One day at the end of January while I was food shopping at Safeway, I received a call from a woman I didn’t know inviting me to join a delegation of religious leaders to Kyiv, the capital of the Ukraine. When I asked about when the trip was scheduled, she said, “next week.” Having just retired and having experience working with people of different faiths, I was intrigued. After thinking about it and consulting with my wife, I decided to go.
The mission was organized by a Polish group of young academics and professionals called, “Europe, A Patient Organization,” which is dedicated to ending pandemics, healing the environment, and strengthening European solidarity. Our mission was to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine, to affirm the multi-religious nature of Ukrainian society, and to pray for a just peace. We have been asked by Ukrainians for this act of solidarity at this most difficult moment for Ukrainian society. The Mayor of Kyiv has extended this invitation to us through Europe, A Patient Organization.
The delegation consisted of an Imam, two Polish Catholic priests, and two rabbis along with the President and Vice-President of Europe, A Patient Organization. We were in Kyiv from February 7 to February 11. While there we visited with leaders and congregations of the major religious faiths: Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish. We also visited the towns outside of Kyiv, the site of fierce battles during March 2022. We also saw some of the evidence and heard testimony of the human rights atrocities which occurred in Bucha and Irpin. The delegation visited and prayed at Babyn Yar (Babi Yar) where 33,000 men, women, and children were murdered by the Nazis on September 29 and 30, 1941. Here are some the important lessons we learned.
- The Russian war on the Ukraine is dedicated to destroying Ukraine’s national identity and memory. Above is a photo of a statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet who lived in the 19th century. Note that the Russians defaced the statue and shot a bullet through the head of the statue.
- There is a national consensus that this war will not end until the Ukrainian army recovers all occupied territory: the Donbas, all of Crimea, and southern Ukraine. We spoke with the State Secretary who is comparable to the chief of staff to the Deputy Prime Minister. He was unwavering about this.
- The Russian people have been brainwashed by their government and social media. Many if not most Ukrainians have relatives who live in Russia. The Ukrainians send real time video of Russian planes and artillery attacking civilians and civilian targets. The Russian relatives deny that the video is real. They say it is all made up and that the Russian soldiers in the video are actually Ukrainian actors dressed as Russians. We heard this from several people without being prompted like the woman in this photo, whom we met in Irpin.
- We visited a displaced persons refuge in Kyiv. We learned that there are about a half dozen such facilities in the city. The director of the refuge spoke about the plight of Ukrainian children. 50% of Ukrainian children under the age of 18 are living outside of the Ukraine. 20% of the children from the Donbas region, where the heaving is taking place, have been kidnapped by the Russian government. On September 30, the Russians annexed the Donbas. They then declared all the orphan children in the region to be Russian citizens and put them up for adoption by Russian families. We also heard testimony from a woman whose husband was tortured in front of her. It is hard to put into words the trauma that many Ukrainians have experienced.
Religious life is very diverse in the Ukraine. The Ukrainian Government established an Interfaith Council of Religions of which all the major religious confessions participate. There is a strong Muslim community in Kyiv. There is also a Muslim Tater community, most of whom lived in the Crimea prior to the war. The Jewish community is small but there are several Orthodox synagogues and one Masorti (Conservative synagogue) pictured with some members.
The Orthodox Russian or Greek Church is the largest Christian Church in the Ukraine. It is actually three different churches. One branch of the Orthodox Church is affiliated with the Orthodox Patriarch in Constantinople; another branch is affiliated with the Orthodox Patriarch in Moscow. A Third branch is an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. There is tension in the Ukraine over the Orthodox Church affiliated with the Moscow Patriarch. Since the Moscow Patriarch is a strong supporter of the current Russian regime, Ukrainians suspect some of these Orthodox priests as not being loyal. There is now legislation being proposed in the Ukrainian Parliament to ban the Orthodox Church with ties to the Moscow Patriarch. Such a move would gravely undermine religious freedom in the Ukraine.
Ukraine is a complex and diverse society and country. Like most democratic countries, its politics are messy, riven with tensions and conflicts. Yet its people seem unified in the face of Russian aggression. They are determined to win this war and rebuild their country. They need our help, materially and financially. Support the Ukraine by donating to Ukrainian relief. Support Ukraine by praying for a just peace.