Orthodox Easter celebration marred by war and division in Ukraine

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

A Ukrainian couple lights candles on Holy Saturday in St. Michael's Monastery in Kyiv [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
A Ukrainian couple lights candles on Holy Saturday in St Michael's Monastery in Kyiv [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

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

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

Facing drizzling rain and gusts of frigid wind, the red-haired Liforenko waited patiently 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 at the church turned to the horrors of the Russian invasion, particularly shelling in Obolon, a northern district of Kyiv – and their sentiments echoed those of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church leader, Metropolitan Epiphanius.

“There is nothing sacred for the Russian murderers,” 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 the St. Michael's Monastery in Kyiv [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Believers near the St Michael’s Monastery in Kyiv [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

A religious divide

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

Kyiv’s centuries-old ecclesiastical subjugation to the Orthodox Patriarchy of Moscow was ended by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, when Epiphanius was elected in 2018 as primate of the independent church of Ukraine.

But the emergence of a new church, independent of the Moscow patriarchy, has also deepened 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 that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had “a metaphysical significance” for the preservation of Christian values.

Ukrainian intelligence previously summoned some of the pro-Moscow priests for questioning, and their names and personal information were featured in Myrotvorets (or Peacemaker), a Ukrainian website that has close ties to law enforcement agencies and hackers and that publishes an online dossier of thousands of pro-Moscow figures in Ukraine.

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

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

Russia’s war on Ukraine has only further antagonised the divided clergy.

Father Andriy Pinchuk of the eastern village of Voloshske collected hundreds of signatures of clerics to petition the pentarchy – the collective name for the world’s five oldest churches in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – to place the patriarch in Moscow on trial.

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

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

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

A basket with Easter eggs and cakes [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
A basket with Easter eggs and cakes [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]


For many Ukrainians, Easter has been darkened by an incident that has made them wonder how much lower Moscow will go, morally, in its war.

On Saturday, Russian cruise missiles fired from a strategic Tu-95 bomber killed eight civilians in the Black Sea port of Odesa.

Among those killed were 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 missiles struck. He fainted after learning about the fate of his family, Ukrainian media reported.

The death of three generations in one family shocked Ukrainians  –  even those who have become accustomed to reports of mass killings, torture and rapes in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, in Borodianka, in the destroyed southern port of Mariupol, and the besieged eastern city of Kharkiv.

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

“I cried and cried after hearing about the poor little girl.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy could barely contain his emotions when talking about the bombing of Odesa.

“The war began when this baby was a month old. Can you imagine? What is going on? Stinking lowlifes. What else can you call them? Just lowlifes,” he told a news conference on Saturday night.

And yet, Easter has brought some peace and quiet to Ukrainians who exchanged Easter cakes and kisses – or, at least, sent their greetings by text messages with postcards, poems and congratulations attached.

“I wish a happy Easter to those who celebrate!” President Zelenskyy’s wife, Olena Zelenska, said on Telegram.

“And the victory of good and light to everyone who awaits it and makes it come true,” she wrote, next to a picture of an angel hovering between a blue sky and a yellow wheat field – the colours of the Ukrainian flag.

‘Russian culture on pause’

Though Kyiv has been free from the danger of a Russian onslaught since early April, believers could only watch the Easter night service at St Michael’s Cathedral online.

The crowd gathered at St Michael’s for blessings 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 Kyiv, receives blessing near St. Michael's Monastery [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Olha Liforenko, centre, a music professor from Kyiv, receives blessing near St Michael’s Monastery [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

A 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 that gave way to Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

In the Soviet era, Liforenko’s family spoke only Ukrainian – a rare thing in Kyiv, where at least two-thirds of the population are still Russian-speaking. But as a music lover, she championed works by Russian composers – including the excruciatingly difficult piano compositions of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

But not anymore, she said.

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

“But we will win. We don’t hope for it; we believe in it,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera