Hostilities had been worsening for some time, and the eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas, had been locked in a quagmire of conflict since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. At that same time, the easternmost parts of the Donbas declared themselves independent from Ukraine, as Russia-leaning statelets with almost no international recognition. Efforts at diplomacy culminated in several iterations of peace agreements, but none of them, known as the Minsk agreements, was ever fully implemented nor respected.
The Holy Father called for a day of prayer and fasting on 26 January for peace in Ukraine.
On 12 February 2022, the bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic dioceses in the United States issued a plea to their faithful and all people of goodwill, warning, “Deaths could be in the tens of thousands and refugees in the millions. The economic and political shockwaves of the social devastation and material destruction in Ukraine will be worldwide.”
In a video message asking Ukrainians to pray, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, His Beatitude Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said, “When new dangers arise and the enemy is on our doorstep, our military checks their combat efficiency, statesmen work to streamline social mechanisms, diplomats work to ensure that the world supports our people and our state. And what do Christians do? Christians pray, fast and repent of their sins.”
The Major Archbishop broadcasts video messages nearly every day on the situation in Ukraine, and the Holy Father has continued to speak out on the senseless aggression against Ukraine at nearly every Angelus prayer and every General Audience.
On 21 February 2022, while visiting the headquarters of Aid to the Church in Need in Königstein, Germany, Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Lviv in western Ukraine, said, “As long as people are still talking, there is a glimmer of hope. War does not bring any solutions, only destruction, suffering and lack of peace.” In a follow-up interview with Catholic News Agency (CNA) the Archbishop added, “We cannot stop begging for prayers time and again and from all the world, as Pope Francis continues to do. Rest assured, our prayers can change the course of this conflict.”
On 24 February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale assault on Ukraine, prompting the largest displacement of people trying to escape conflict since the massive migrations seen during and in the aftermath of the Second World War. Although during some periods of calm people returned from where they had sought shelter, mostly in nearby countries such as Poland and Germany, upwards of 15 million people have left Ukraine at some point, seeking safety away from home.
As severe winter weather conditions set in, many people who temporarily moved east to see their destroyed homes and towns once they were free of Russian occupiers, are again moving westward.
The UN predicts that hundreds of thousands will continue to move west in the coming months, with no way to keep warm in life-threatening temperatures. The situation is fluid, with ‘liberated’ cities coming under indiscriminate shelling once Russian troops withdrew. Kyiv has come under attack again, and has then counter-attacked in Russia, bringing great uncertainty amid escalating rather than diminishing tensions.
Poland currently has 1.5 million Ukrainians registered as refugees, while the number of refugees in Germany recently surpassed 1 million. According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 2.8 million refugees are present in Russia, although the circumstances of those refugees and the conditions they live in remain shrouded in doubt. Human rights groups and opposing governments have published and publicly questioned the veracity of Russia’s claims that it has been protecting civilians from Ukrainian attacks in the Donbas. Credible reports have emerged of human rights abuses and disappearances of Ukrainians seeming to have any connection or allegiance to the government in Kyiv. There are also reports that many people who are Russian speaking and Russian of descent were transplanted in the east of Ukraine as occupiers and were simply transferred back to safety in Russia proper.
Other countries hosting major numbers of Ukrainian refugees include the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Moldova, Romania and Latvia. The United States has welcomed over 100,000 refugees, as a major host country outside of Europe.
Local communities are the frontline responders in any humanitarian emergency. Catholic structures and religious institutes, including seminaries, monasteries convents, churches and Catholic schools – and the Catholic priests, religious Brothers and Sisters who manage these – opened their doors wide, taking in as many people as they could possibly support.
The CR4U Working Group is comprised of the following members:
- The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), convener of CR4U
- The Migrants and Refugees Section, Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development
- Caritas Internationalis
- Caritas Europa
- Jesuit Refugee Service (global)
- Jesuit Refugee Service (Europe office)
The main areas of activity of the working group include: information sharing, advocacy, humanitarian response, communications and support to the clergy and religious who are on the ground and find themselves working as frontline responders, sometimes with little preparation and no respite.
The team also first visited work in Krakow, Poland, and Msgr. Vitillo attended the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Poland, held for security reasons just over the border with Ukraine, in the town of Przemysl. The aim was to ensure the people of Ukraine and the churches there know the world is thinking of them, is with them in solidarity, and they are not alone. In addition, ICMC sought to identify any gaps in programming in response to the war in Ukraine, from among Catholic Church partners, UN agencies and other humanitarian actors.
ICMC has since identified needs that were not being addressed or sufficiently addressed in Ukraine, and has designed programming with partners to fill those gaps. One of ICMC’s key Catholic funding partners in the United States, GHR Foundation, also recently created an emergency fund managed by ICMC, to respond specifically to emergency situations not just in Ukraine, but any humanitarian emergency where a need exists – especially those that are somehow being neglected or falling through the cracks in the humanitarian sector’s response.
The projects funded by ICMC in Ukraine include:
The traumatic experiences range from witnessing killings, experiencing and or witnessing sexual abuse, being forced to kill in self-defense, as well as questions about pregnancy resulting from sexual assault, the morality of killing one’s enemies, and the role of God in this situation of widespread suffering and misery. While the clergy is trained to offer spiritual support and catechetical answers to some of these complex moral issues, they are not necessarily trained to properly recognize the symptoms of psychological disorders. Training is also required to recognize the limits of pastoral support and the necessity of further referral to mental health professionals.
ICMC provided $14,000 for support for training workshops for priests and seminarians to help support them in their pastoral work. The funding will support the hiring and paying the salaries of trained psychologists to support the clergy and to hold a series of trainings over a period of one year, until the end of October 2023. Up to another $1500 was provided to translate guidance documents on how clergy could counsel victims of sexual and gender-based violence, especially among the women and children who fled from eastern parts of Ukraine.
ICMC, relying on emergency funding from the U.S.-based GHR Foundation, was able to contribute $15,000 toward the purchase of a new water heater and other supplies and to upgrade the heating, insulation, and fire alarm systems to provide warm shelter to about 100 people who fled their homes throughout the winter.
This funding, worth $8000, will help the local partner in Ukraine, the Knights of Columbus, to secure those items on the local market, for people with specific dietary and medical needs that were being overlooked, in the diocese of Ivano-Frankivsk.
The children soothe the dogs when they themselves feel stressful emotions, which soothes them in turn.
The $5,500 in funding will also cover educational materials and recreational trips for children, and provide awareness raising to parents as well for three months.
SUPPORT UKRAINIANS DISPLACED BY WAR
- Needs Evolving but No Less Urgent in Ukraine
- The Sights, Sounds and Feelings When Meeting With Ukrainian Refugees and Displaced People
- As Ukrainians Flee, Let Us Not Become Disinterested Bystanders
- ICMC Convening Efforts To Coordinate Church Responses to the War in Ukraine
- ICMC Assists Local Organizations Responding to the Needs of Displaced Ukrainians