Christmas amidst the war. Christmas celebrated in a basement. In the heart of Europe there is an “open, bleeding wound.” It’s in Ukraine, but Western media outlets appear to have forgotten all about it. His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine, recently paid a visit to the population living in the so-called “grey zone”, the line that crosses the eastern part of the Country, between Donetsk and Lugansk, where, in the past two-and-a-half years, the war has never ended. His Beatitude was accompanied by members of the Inter-confessional and Inter-religious Council of the Ukraine, along with a delegation of Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim religious representatives to “express our closeness to the people, to tell them that we shall not abandon them, to say, your suffering is our suffering, your pain is our pain.”
Figures and balances are hard to put together. It is estimated that to date the death toll of the armed conflict is of 10 thousand people, with 4 thousand displaced. As many as 5 million people have been directly affected by the war; 70 thousand severely wounded civilians and military. “There was never a cease-fire”, His Beatitude said.
“All those who could leave have left, but they left under the bombings; children women and children are living in these destroyed homes, in these roofless schools. Whole cities afflicted by deep suffering, unreached by government bodies’ food and medicine aids.”
Relief is being provided by the Churches. They have never abandoned the people. There is deep concern over the fate of the soldiers taken hostage and captured by the Russian army. “They suffer terrible tortures and even when it is possible to release them, they return home with terrifying mutilations,” said the head of the Ukrainian Church, adding that he had voiced this “cry of alarm” “in all religious, civil and institutional settings.”’ His Beatitude spoke of yet another “crime against humanity, that is the trafficking of corpses.” It’s an atrocious mechanism whereby family members of the victims are often willing to negotiate with the guerrilla and to pay a ransom in return for their sons or husbands. But once the payment goes through they are returned the dead and mutilated bodies of their dear ones, scarred by evident signs of torture.”
“We ought to defend the dignity of the human person, not only of the living person, but also when the person is dead.”
In Ukraine Odessa stands out in the stage of the denial of human rights. In the beautiful port city bordering on the Black Sea, 150 thousand faithful of the Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine do not have a cathedral to celebrate Mass. The basement of a building is the only place they managed to buy. Schvechuk has just returned from Odessa. He said: “It was just large enough for 30/40 people, all the other faithful remained outside, on the street, following the service through loudspeakers. That day we administered the Eucharist to 300 people. The Gospel reading was the passage on the Good Samaritan; the Word that speaks of the Most Merciful God that never abandons those who are in need, the marginalized, and the wounded. My message to them was: ‘Do not be afraid. We will come out of these catacombs since the force that will bring us out will not depend on privileges but on our faith.”
Europe: hostage of hatred and fear. “The powerful in the world – Schevchuk remarked – want to impinge on our minds and hearts, spreading two destructive feelings: hatred and fear.
“We are growing paralysed by fear, fear is influencing our political and electoral decisions. My message is: We are not afraid because only those who surrendered to challenges are afraid. We are the builders of our future. The future is in our hands.”
The second message is addressed to hate-mongers. “We must not allow hatred to take over our hearts. Hatred is always the spark of wars. If we give in to hatred, the world will be in danger.”
Major changes lie ahead in the realm of international diplomatic relations after the presidential election of Donald Trump. “Nobody can foretell the political line of the new government”, the head of the Greek-Catholic Church said serenely. “We have no fears or concern. We have hope. First of all we hope that the United States acknowledge their responsibility also toward the international community. And that everything possible should be done to stop the war, to restore peace in the areas suffering the consequences of the conflict and to create new ways leading to the establishment of a peace agreement. If the world surrenders to the logic of war, we will all suffer the consequences, not only others.”
The strong hope that the Pope may one day visit the Ukraine. “I’ve been asking him on every occasion”, His Beatitude remarked with a spark in his eyes. “Every time I see him, I ask the Pope to come.”
The population at large believes that if the Pope visits Ukraine the war will be over.
People are disappointed by the inefficiency of diplomatic negotiations, by the system regulating international law, which has stopped delivering results. But they have deep faith and hope in God. The Pope is a moral authority, a global point of reference, and everyone sees and recognizes his role. That’s why people say that if the Pope visits our Country, the war will be over. We nurture this hope.; we pray.”