To write this letter to you brings me a deep sense of pain and extreme concern about the situation facing the flock of the Church in Novorossiya (the south and the east of the Ukraine), where a fratricidal civil war has been raging for the last few months. Last autumn, at the beginning of the current Ukrainian political crisis, members of the Greek Catholic (Uniat) church and schismatic ‘Orthodox’ openly preached hatred of the Orthodox Church on Maidan Square in Kiev; they urged the seizure of Orthodox shrines and called for the eradication of Orthodoxy from the Ukraine. Since the outbreak of hostilities, Uniats and schismatics have taken up arms under the guise of an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ and started direct aggression against the clergy of the canonical Church in the Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Church, unlike the Uniats and schismatics, remains alien to political bias. It continues to carry out pastoral care for its faithful, including those who find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict, trying to reconcile them, issuing constant calls for dialogue.
In recent weeks we have received reports from local bishops indicating abuse of canonical Orthodox clergy as they carry out their pastoral duties. Here are a few examples. On 17 July, during the Divine Liturgy in the Church of the Resurrection in Slavyansk, a gang of armed men led by a Uniat military chaplain threatened the rector, Archpriest Vitaly Vesyol. The Uniat ‘priest’ stated that the Church does not belong in the Ukraine and lamented that the authorities would not let the Uniats steal the Monastery of the Kiev Caves. On 19 July junta ‘soldiers’ issued death threats to Archpriest Andrei Chicherinda, Dean of the Nikolaevsk District of the Dioceses of Gorlovka and Slavyansk and harassed and interrogated him, keeping him handcuffed. On 20 July, near Slavyansk, thugs armed with sub-machine guns made Archpriest Vadim Yablonovsky dig his own grave and on the same day they arrested Archpriest Viktor Stratovich, handcuffed him, and took him away with a bag over his head into the woods, where they forced him to grovel on his knees as they interrogated him.
On July 30 in Krasnoarmeiskoe a group of armed men illegally searched the home of Archpriest Igor Sergienko, rector of St Alexander Nevsky parish. They insulted Fr Igor, accusing him of taking part in clandestine organisations, threatened him with torture, demanded that he leave the Ukraine and that he hand over the deeds of the parish property. On the same day, in the Amvrosievska District, Ukrainian troops seized Archpriest Yevgeni Podgorny, showering him with abusive curses, bound him and threw him to the ground. They kicked him, hit him with a rifle butt and fired over his head, to force him to admit that he supported the Home Guard. They tried to force him to take off his priestly cross, but he refused, so they tore if off by force, put a bag over his head and threw him into a pit. Then they threatened to kill his son and robbed his house. Only his parishioners’ intervention saved Fr Igor.
We cannot ignore the fact that the conflict in the Ukraine has unambiguous religious overtones. The Uniats and schismatics are trying to overpower the canonical Orthodox Church, which continues to minister with patience and courage to its suffering faithful in a harsh environment. Priests are serving in places that have become battlegrounds; the majority remain with their flocks, sharing with them all the horrors of the civil war. Their families suffer from attacks, lack of water and food and shelling. On 31 July Archpriest Vladimir Kreslyansky died of his wounds after the shelling of civilian areas in Lugansk, leaving a wife and five children.
Novorossiya was a fruitful land inhabited by millions of hardworking Orthodox Christians… now, it is being burned down and destroyed. Bombing has destroyed the home of Metropolitan Hilarion (Shukalo) (he heads the Diocese of Donetsk and Mariupol). Artillery shelling damaged the Diocesan Administration building in Gorlovka. The Convent of the Iviron Icon in the Diocese of Donetsk lies in ruins, it was burned down during the fighting. However, the canonical Church is a Martyr Church; it remains with the believers in spite of these difficult conditions, it does everything possible to help people who are experiencing the worst times in modern Ukrainian history. The fire of civil conflict has caused hundreds of thousands to lose their homes and become refugees. Many of them try to escape the horrors of war by finding shelter in churches and monasteries, in particular, in the Monastery of the Dormition in Svyatogorsk, which is full of refugees. In Donetsk, Gorlovka, and Lugansk, civilians try to escape the bombardments by staying in the churches at night; once there, they get free food and shelter. All the canonical Orthodox monasteries, parishes, and dioceses provide all kinds of assistance to refugees and ordinary civilians.
Our Church as a whole is using every opportunity to provide humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in areas where fighting is taking place. Daily, all our churches offer up special prayers for peace and the end of internecine warfare in the Ukraine. The Church is taking care of many thousands of refugees from Novorossiya in camps and in specially prepared facilities located all over Russia. We are providing assistance to all without distinction as to nationality or religion. Amongst those who have sought refuge in Russia are many Ukrainian soldiers who did not want to shoot their own people.
These are perilous days for our Russian Orthodox Church, especially for the faithful in the Ukraine, I ask the prayers of Your Holiness, archpastors, pastors, monastics, and all the believers of the Holy Church of Constantinople for peace in the Ukrainian land, to stop the bloodshed and to end the suffering of our brethren in the Lord, especially of our archpastors and pastors, who in the most difficult conditions of civil strife continue to do their duty courageously, serve the Church and defend Holy Orthodoxy. I ask Your Holiness to use every opportunity to raise your voice to defend Orthodox Christians in Novorossiya, who live in daily fear due to the worsening violence by Greek Catholics and schismatics, who fear that if the persecutors take power they and their loved ones will face severe persecution if they do not renounce their faith.
15 August 2014
+ Kyrill, Patriarch of Moscow and all the Russias