Ukraine war: Zelenksy's prayer for peace on Orthodox Easter

Zelenksy’s prayer for peace… while Putin prays for victory: Ukrainian president asks for strength in ‘overcoming dark times’ while Russian leader lights candle at Moscow church as his bombs rain on the innocent

  • Putin attended midnight mass at Moscow’s vast Christ the Saviour Cathedral
  • He was seen lighting a candle, but photos suggested his mind was elsewhere
  • It came as his invasion of Ukraine entered its third month, with limited progress
  • Across the border, just 280 miles from Moscow, the people of Ukraine were also marking Orthodox Easter – in some cases in the ruins of destroyed churches 
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week that Russia had rejected a proposal for a pause in the fighting over the Easter period
  • Overnight, Zelensky vowed in an Easter message that no ‘wickedness’ will destroy the country and prayed that God returns happiness to children

Russia and Ukraine both marked Orthodox Easter on Sunday, with pictures showing Vladimir Putin in a Moscow church as his army’s missiles continued to rain down on Ukrainian civilians across the country.

The Russian strongman attended the midnight mass at the capital’s vast Christ the Saviour Cathedral, that sits close to the Kremlin.

But as his invasion – which was meant to result in a swift, decisive victory over Russia’s smaller neighbour – entered its third month, pictures showed Putin’s mind appeared to be elsewhere as he stood by the church’s altar during the ceremony, dwarfed by a large mural of the Virgin Mary resting Baby Jesus on her lap.

He held a lit candle and when Patriarch Kirill – head of the Russian Orthodox Church – said ‘Christ has risen’, Putin joined other worshippers with the reply ‘Truly he is risen’.

Across the border, just 280 miles from Moscow, the same words were spoken by people in Ukraine as the embattled nation also marked Orthodox Easter, in some cases in the ruins of churches destroyed by Russian shells.

In the capital of Kyiv, prayers were held for those fighting on the front lines and others trapped beyond them in places like Mariupol.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed in an Easter message that no ‘wickedness’ will destroy the country and prayed that God returns happiness to children and brings solace to grieving mothers.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis appealed again for a truce in war-torn Ukraine over the weekend, ‘to ease the suffering of exhausted people’. 

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Orthodox Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, April 24, 2022

KYIV: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses Ukrainian people with Orthodox Easter message, as Russia’s attack continues, at the Saint Sophia cathedral, April 23

In a video address from one of the country’s best known landmarks, the 1,000-year-old Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Zelensky said Ukraine will overcome the darkness that Russia’s invasion had brought upon it.

‘Today, we still believe in the new victory of Ukraine and we are all convinced that we will not be destroyed by any horde or wickedness,’ said Zelensky, wearing his trademark dark khaki outfit.

‘We are overcoming dark times and on this day I – and most of us – are not in bright clothes, but we are fighting for a luminous idea.’

Ukraine’s St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral – also in Kyiv – was ringed by hundreds of worshipers with baskets to be blessed.

Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, said on Sunday that seven churches there have been destroyed in the war.

While churches used to be full for overnight and morning Easter services, this year churches have been asked not to gather many people, with concerns they could be targets for missiles.

Zelensky said on Thursday Russia had rejected a proposal for a truce over the Easter period.

Senior Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak said on Sunday Russian forces were shelling the Avozstal steelworks in the besieged southern city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian defenders are holed up..

In a Twitter message, he called for ‘a real Easter truce in Mariupol’, along with an immediate humanitarian corridor for civilians and a special talks to facilitate the exchange of military and civilians.

Inside, a woman clutched the arm of a soldier, turning briefly to kiss his elbow. Other soldiers prayed, holding handful of candles, then crossed themselves.

An older woman bent slowly made her way through the crowd and stands of flickering candles. One young woman held daffodils.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (pictured in the backfround) and Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (to Putin’s right) attend Orthodox Easter mass led by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (walking down the stairs) at the Christ The Saviour Cathedral on April 24, 2022 in Moscow

Family members mourn during the funeral service for fallen soldier Kobryn Oleg, aged 39, at Saint’s Peter and Peul Garrison Church on April 23, 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine

Left: Worshippers receive a sanctification during an Orthodox Easter service in front of St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kyiv on April 24, 2022. Right: Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulate each other after the Easter service at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, early Sunday, April 24, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends Orthodox Easter mass led by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill at the Christ The Saviour Cathedral on April 24, 2022 in Moscow, Russia

A Ukrainian soldier lights candles at the Volodymysky Cathedral during Easter celebration in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Apr. 24, 2022

Left: A Virgin Mary statue stands in front of a flag of Ukraine, as Ukrainian believers attend an Orthodox Easter service at the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows in Pardubice, Czech Republic, early 24 April 2022. Right: Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a candle during the Orthodox Easter mass in Moscow. Behind him, a nativity painting towers over him

Believers attend the Orthodox Easter service at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Russia April 24, 2022

Faithfuls attend an Orthodox Easter service outside the damaged Church of the Nativity of the Virgin in Peremoha village, Ukraine, 24 April 2022

Pope Francis scraps planned meeting with Russia’s Putin-backing Patriarch Kirill

Pope Francis this week dropped plans to meet in June with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has backed Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

Francis, who has several times implicitly criticised Russia and Putin over the war, told Argentine newspaper La Nacion in an interview that he regretted that the plan had to be ‘suspended’ because Vatican diplomats advised that such a meeting ‘could lend itself to much confusion at this moment’.

In Moscow, the RIA news agency quoted Metropolitan Hilarion, a senior Russian Orthodox Church official, as saying the meeting was postponed because ‘the events of the last two months’ would have created many difficulties in its preparation.

Reuters reported on April 11 that the Vatican was considering extending the pope’s trip to Lebanon on June 12-13 by a day so that he could meet with Kirill on June 14 in Jerusalem. 

Kirill, 75, has given his full-throated blessing for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since it began on Feb. 24, a position that has splintered the worldwide Orthodox Church and unleashed an internal rebellion that theologians and academics say is unprecedented.

Francis, 85, has used terms such as unjustified aggression and invasion in his public comments on the war, and has lamented atrocities against civilians.

Asked in the interview why he has never named Russia or Putin specifically, Francis was quoted as saying: ‘A pope never names a head of state, much less a country, which is superior to its head of state’.  

With the Orthodox church split by the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, some worshippers hoped the holy day could inspire gestures of peace-making.

‘The church can help,’ said one man who gave only his first name, Serhii, as he came to a church in Kyiv under the Moscow Patriarchate.

He and others brought baskets to be blessed by priests for Easter, with flicks of a brush sprinkling holy water over offerings of home-dyed eggs, lighted candles and even bottles of Jack Daniels.

Residents of rural villages battered by the war approached the holiday with some defiance.

‘We’ll celebrate Easter no matter what, no matter much horror,’ said Kateryna Lazarenko, 68, in the northern village of Ivanivka outside Chernihiv, where ruined Russian tanks still littered the roads.

‘How do I feel? Very nervous, everyone is nervous,’ said another resident, Olena Koptyl, as she prepared her Easter bread. 

‘The Easter holiday doesn’t bring any joy. I’m crying a lot. We cannot forget how we lived.’ She and 12 others spent a month sheltering from Russian soldiers in the basement of her home before the soldiers withdrew.

Away from Kyiv, under the rain at a military position in the eastern town of Lyman, on the frontline, soldiers traded the usual patriotic salutation of ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ for the ritual ‘Christ has risen!’

‘Truly risen!’ came the reply.

In the town’s small Orthodox church, around 50 civilians had braved possible mortar fire to gather to pray from dawn. Ukrainian and Russian artillery fire could be heard throughout the singing of the psalms.

‘If we make the wrong choices then darkness will ruin us, as darkness is destroying us during this war,’ the priest said in his sermon.

On another part of the frontline, in the eastern city of Severodonetsk, Ukrainian troops had hidden their small stock of supplies under a bridge after they were hit by Russian mortar rounds in the night.

Along with water and Coke bottles, Kalashnikovs and cereal bars, three large Easter breads covered in icing and sprinkled with multicoloured sugar beads awaited them, after a delivery from their commander.

Worshipers stand next to their traditional cakes and painted eggs prepared for an Easter celebration during a religious service at a church in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Sunday

Olga Zhovtobrukh, 55, cries during an Easter religious service celebrated at a church in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Sunday, April 24, 2022

People attend a service at the Volodymysky Cathedral during Easter celebration in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Apr. 24, 2022

Local residents walk after the Orthodox Easter service next to The Nativity of the Holy Virgin Church damaged by shelling during Russia’s invasion in the village of Peremoha, in Kyiv region, Ukraine April 24, 2022

An Orthodox priest Oleksandr conducts the Orthodox Easter service at the remains of Trinity church in the village of Hostroluchchia, in Kyiv region, Ukraine April 24, 2022

In his Saturday message Zelensky also said Mariupol and its ‘heroic defenders’ should not be forgotten.

‘It is possible to destroy the walls, but it is not possible to destroy the foundation on which the spirit of our warriors, the spirit of the whole country, rests,’ he said.

Ukrainian officials said least 213 children have been killed in the war, including a 3-month-old infant in strikes on Saturday in the southern city of Odesa.

Pavlo Krylenko, the governor of Donetsk region, said on Telegram that two girls aged 5 and 14 were killed on Sunday when the building where they lived was destroyed by Russian shelling.

Russia has denied targeting civilians.

‘Give every boy and every girl a happy childhood, youth, and old age, which will allow at least a bit to shed the memories of their terrible childhood during the war,’ Zelensky said.

‘Take care of our mothers, give endurance to those who are waiting for a son or daughter to return from the war,’ he added. ‘Give endurance to those who, unfortunately, would not see the return of their child from the front.’ 

Ukraine on Sunday prepared for the first high-level U.S. trip to Kyiv since before the war began on February 24 after Zelensky announced he would meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Zelensky in his news conference Saturday night gave few details but said he expected results – ‘not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons.’

Meanwhile, the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine flew among the faithful gathered in the Vatican on St Peter’s Square, where the leader of the Roman Catholic Church recalled that fighting erupted two months ago on February 24.

‘Instead of halting, the war has become worse,’ Pope Francis said.

‘It is sad that on these most holy and solemn days for Christians we hear more of the murderous noise of weapons than that of the bells announcing the resurrection’ of Christ.

‘I renew the appeal for an Easter truce, the smallest tangible sign of a willingness for peace,’ he pleaded.

‘Stop the attacks to ease the suffering of exhausted people,’ the pope added, with both Russians and Ukrainians celebrating Orthodox Easter this Sunday.

UN Ukraine crisis coordinator Amin Awad called on Sunday for an ‘immediate stop’ to fighting in Mariupol to allow the evacuation of trapped civilians in the battered port city almost all of which is now under Russian control.

On Palm Sunday, April 10, the pope had called for an Easter truce leading ‘to peace through veritable negotiations’. On Thursday he backed UN secretary general Antonio Guterres’ own appeal for an end to the fighting. 

Worshippers light candles at the Saint Volodymyr’s Cathedral during Orthodox Eastern celebrations in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 24, 2022

A female Ukrainian soldier crosses herself during an Orthodox Easter service in St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kyiv on April 24, 2022

An Orthodox priest Oleksandr conducts the Orthodox Easter service at the remains of Trinity church in the village of Hostroluchchia, in Kyiv region, Ukraine April 24, 2022

The modest Easter celebrations came just a day after missile struck a residential building in the Black Sea port of Odesa, killing eight people and wounding at least 18, according to Zelensky, who said five missiles hit the historic city.

‘We will identify all those responsible for this strike; those responsible for Russia’s missile terror,’ he said.

Russia’s defence ministry said it had targeted a major depot stocking foreign weapons near Odesa, attacks that upended the relative calm the city has enjoyed since the beginning of the war.

The ministry also charged that Ukrainian special services in Odesa were preparing a ‘provocation with the use of toxic chemical substances’ that could then be blamed on Russia.

Western powers have accused Russia in the past of making such allegations as a cover or diversion for attacks its own forces are planning.

The latest fighting followed an announcement earlier this week from a senior Russian military officer who said Moscow aimed to take full control over the eastern Donbas region and southern Ukraine.

Russian forces, who withdrew from around Kyiv and the north of Ukraine after being frustrated in their attempts to take the capital, already occupy much of the Donbas and the south.

After changing their strategic focus to southern and eastern Ukraine, Russian forces left behind a trail of destruction around Kyiv, including in the commuter town of Bucha.

A United Nations mission to Bucha documented ‘the unlawful killing, including by summary execution, of some 50 civilians there’, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said.

Russian forces had ‘indiscriminately shelled and bombed populated areas, killing civilians and wrecking hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure, actions that may amount to war crimes’.

Tania Boikiv, 52, said Russian troops took her husband from their home in Bucha, held him for two weeks, then beat him to death as they retreated.

‘The most terrible thing in my life is that my husband, my loved one, is gone,’ she told AFP. ‘I don’t know what could be worse.’

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