Yuriy Opoka prays his wife and young daughter will be safe in Ukraine as he closely follows the massive buildup of Russian troops on the country’s borders and dire warnings that they could invade at any time.
The 33-year-old journalist often calls his family from Philadelphia, where he’s attending an English course, and recently joined others in the city’s Ukrainian community at a rally calling for peace back home.
“My 5-year-old daughter asks my wife why Russians want to kill Ukrainians,” Opoka said about his loved ones, who live in the western city of Lviv. “I’m frustrated and also worried about them.”
Religious leaders and members of the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States are growing increasingly concerned over the threat of a dramatic escalation of the nearly decade-old conflict and have stepped up efforts to show support for family members and their Eastern European homeland.
That support ranges from offering spiritual succor during special prayer services and maintaining charitable donations to organizing demonstrations and full-throated institutional declarations opposing Moscow’s actions amid the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Moscow, which has more than 100,000 troops deployed near Ukraine, insists it has no plans to attack and said Tuesday that some of its troops had pulled back from the area. But a U.S. defense official said Russian troops were moving toward, not away from, the Ukrainian border, and Western officials warn an invasion could happen at any moment.
“It’s a stressor for all of us here … because of the danger that it will be a bloody mess,” said the Rev. Taras Lonchyna, pastor of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Trenton, New Jersey. “Our parishioners have contact with their families. … They’re not only concerned about COVID but about the war.”
St. Josaphat parishioner Myroslava Kucharska said she talks daily with her two sons and four grandchildren who live in the southern city of Mykolaiv and in Kyiv, the capital.
“I tell my sons: ‘Be ready, be ready,’” Kucharska said. “We’re praying with tears in our eyes. … We know what war means.”
Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, where most in the congregation have relatives in western Ukraine, has responded to the crisis by keeping parishioners up to date on the situation and encouraging prayer, including at a recent service focused on peace. Should the need arise, Father Jason Charron said, the church is prepared to provide humanitarian help as it has in recent years for the country’s war-torn east.
After emerging from decades of communist Soviet rule, Ukrainian Catholics are prepared to resist any invasion that would threaten to put them under the Kremlin’s thumb again, Charron said: “For them, the repression of their culture and their history is tied with the repression of their faith.”
His wife, Ukrainian native Halyna Charron, said family members and friends throughout that her home country are surprised and encouraged that the West is now devoting so much attention to Ukraine after years of paying little notice. It’s in America’s interest to do so, she said, because the United States was signatory to a 1994 pact in which Ukraine agreed to give up Soviet-era nuclear weapons on its soil in return for Russia promising to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
“I understand some Americans will say, ‘Oh, what’s the big deal? Ukraine is somewhere far,’” she said. “But once you are in that position of power and you sign papers, you have to honor those promises.”
In Pittsburgh this past weekend, members of St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church were selling homemade soup in a “Souper Bowl” fundraiser to help feed people in need back home. In past years’ fundraisers, customers would often ask where the country is. But in 2022, with constant headlines about the crisis, they no longer have to ask and are often eager to help.
Father John Haluszczak, the church’s pastor, said parishioners are worried about relatives and others in Ukraine, such as the children and staffers at a church-supported orphanage.
“We’re not praying for winning or losing but pretty much for peace,” he said.
Archbishop Borys Gudziak, metropolitan archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Philadelphia for the United States, said there are daily prayers for peace being said in each of the 200 or so Ukrainian Catholic parishes in the U.S., along with regular collections for orphans and wounded soldiers.
In recent weeks the Ukrainian diaspora in America has also staged a number of demonstrations including a Philadelphia rally in late January of religious leaders and the faithful, supported by the Belarusian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Estonian, Georgian, Uzbek and other diasporas of the city’s greater metro area.
“The Ukrainian Catholic community and the general Ukrainian community in the U.S. has been involved in this in a very regular way” Gudziak said of the eight years of fighting in eastern Ukraine in which more than 14,000 people have died. “Now with this new danger, a danger of being in further invasion, there is heightened awareness.”
A Russian invasion could cause thousands of deaths and unleash a refugee crisis with millions forced to flee, Gudziak added in an interview via videoconference from Lviv, where he was attending a meeting,
“How many schools, how many hospitals, how many bridges and roads, how many churches, synagogues, mosques have to be destroyed? How many more orphans need to be created? How many people have to be driven into homelessness and poverty?” said Gudziak, who also serves as head of the department of external church relations for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church is a minority Eastern Rite church that uses the Byzantine or Greek liturgy and is loyal to the pope. Last month Pope Francis called for a day of prayer over the Ukraine crisis and for political talks prioritizing “human brotherhood instead of partisan interests.” The Holy See’s secretary of state phoned the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church on Monday to express the Vatican’s solidarity.
The Council of Bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, meanwhile, released a statement headlined, “Pray for Ukraine.”
“The scare and intimidation tactics with the presence of the armed vehicles and over a hundred thousand of soldiers around the borders of Ukraine combined with systematic cyber attacks at all levels of life in Ukraine can only be interpreted as terroristic threats that target innocent lives of Ukrainian citizens,” it said.