Orthodox Easter celebration marred by war and division in Ukraine


Kyiv, Ukraine – Olha Liforenko waited for a priest to give an Easter blessing at St. Michael’s Monastery, a golden-domed cathedral with sky-blue walls in central Kiev, and had some thoughts on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“When I look at Putin, I don’t see a human being. I see nothing but dead flesh,” said the 75-year-old.

Facing drizzle and gusts of wind, redhead Liforenko patiently waited with a friend on Saturday for a priest to bless the Easter eggs and homemade sweet cakes she had brought to this place of worship ahead of Orthodox Easter.

Their conversation in the church turned to the horrors of the Russian invasion, especially shelling in Obolon, a northern district of Kiev – and their feelings matched those of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church leader, Metropolitan Epiphanius.

“There is nothing sacred about the Russian killers,” Epiphanius said in a web-posted statement, condemning Putin for refusing to declare a three-day ceasefire over the Easter period.

On Sunday – the day that Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter – the war in Ukraine entered its third month.

Believers near Saint Michael’s Monastery in Kiev [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

A religious divide

At 43, Epiphanius is one of the youngest leaders of one of the world’s youngest churches – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The centuries-old ecclesiastical submission of Kiev to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow was ended by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, when Epiphanius was elected Primate of the Independent Church of Ukraine in 2018.

But the emergence of a new church independent of the Moscow Patriarchate has also widened the religious divide in Ukraine.

Thousands of parishes in Ukraine still report to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill, an ally of Putin, has said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had “metaphysical significance” for preserving Christian values.

Ukrainian intelligence agencies previously called in some of the pro-Moscow priests for questioning, and their names and personal information were listed on Myrotvorets (or Peacemaker), a Ukrainian website closely linked to law enforcement agencies and hackers, and which publishes an online file of thousands. of pro-Moscow figures in Ukraine.

Father Hennady Shkil, a white-bearded Orthodox priest from the southern Ukrainian city of Hola Prystan, is in that file.

“I’m proud to be on that list,” he told Al Jazeera.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has only further antagonized the divided clergy.

Father Andriy Pinchuk of the eastern village of Voloshske collected hundreds of clergy signatures to request the pentarchy – the collective name for the world’s five oldest churches in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – to bring the patriarch to justice in Moscow.

Ukrainian clerics have also called on their followers to stay away from pro-Moscow Orthodox churches.

Father Roman Kinik, who serves at Saint Catherine’s Cathedral in Ukraine’s northern city of Chernihiv, said those who worship in pro-Moscow churches will receive a bloody blessing at Easter.

“Those who go to these churches on Saturdays will have their Easter cakes blessed with blood,” he told Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency on Friday.

A basket of Easter eggs and pastries [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
A basket of Easter eggs and pastries [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

‘layer animals’

For many Ukrainians, Easter has been obscured by an incident that makes them wonder how much lower Moscow’s morale will go in its war.

Russian cruise missiles fired by a strategic Tu-95 bomber killed eight civilians on Saturday in the Black Sea port city of Odessa.

The dead included a three-month-old child, Kira Glodan, her mother and grandmother – who had arrived from Russia.

Kira’s father, Yuri Glodan, had gone out to buy an Easter cake when the rockets struck. He passed out after learning about his family’s fate, Ukrainian media reported.

The deaths of three generations in one family shocked Ukrainians — even those who have grown accustomed to reports of massacres, torture and rape in the Kiev suburb of Bucha, in Borodianka, in the ruined southern port of Mariupol, and the besieged eastern city of Kharkov. .

“Putin is a demon, Satan incarnate,” Olha Kaluzhna, 43, a resident of Odessa, told Al Jazeera.

“I cried and cried when I heard about the poor little girl.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy could barely contain his emotions when he spoke of the bombing of Odessa.

“The war started when this baby was one month old. Could you imagine? What is going on? Stinky low lives. How else can you call them? Just lowlifes,” he told a press conference on Saturday evening.

And yet Easter brought some peace and tranquility to the Ukrainians who exchanged Easter cookies and kisses — or at least sent their greetings by text message with postcards, poems, and congratulations attached.

“Happy Easter to everyone who celebrates it!” So said President Zelenskyy’s wife, Olena Zelenska, on Telegram.

“And the victory of good and light to all who wait for it and make it come true,” she wrote. next to an image of an angel hovering between a blue sky and a yellow wheat field – the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

‘Russian culture on break’

Although Kiev has been free from the threat of a Russian attack since early April, worshipers were only able to watch the Easter night service at St. Michael’s Cathedral online.

The crowd gathered for blessings at St. Michael’s on Saturday was many times smaller than usual, said 75-year-old Liforenko, who waited for a tall, bearded, black-robed priest to sprinkle holy water on her Easter basket.

Olha Liforenko, center, a music professor from Kiev, receives blessing near Saint Michael's Monastery [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Olha Liforenko, center, a music professor from Kiev, receives blessing near Saint Michael’s Monastery [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Conservatory professor and acclaimed pianist, Liforenko said she has been coming to this church for more than three decades — since the twilight of the Soviet Union gave way to Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

In the Soviet era, Liforenko’s family spoke only Ukrainian — a rarity in Kiev, where at least two-thirds of the population still speak Russian. But as a music lover, she defended works by Russian composers – including Sergei Rachmaninoff’s excruciatingly difficult piano compositions.

But not anymore, she said.

“We will have to put Russian culture on hold for a long time,” she told Al Jazeera, pointing to scaffolding at the church to protect against Russian bombs.

“But we will win. We hope not; we believe in it,” she said.

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