Catholics in Ukraine’s War Zones Face ‘Catastrophic Situation’

Ukrainian Bishop Stanislav Shyrokoradiuk discusses the disastrous conditions in the areas of his diocese that are no longer under government control.

Volunteers distribute food in Ukraine in this undated photo.
Volunteers distribute food in Ukraine in this undated photo. (photo: Aid to the Church in Need)

KHARKIV, Ukraine — For Bishop Stanislav Shyrokoradiuk of Kharkiv-Zaporizha, the situation in Eastern Ukraine is dramatic: His Roman Catholic diocese encompasses almost the entire eastern part of Ukraine, including areas that are no longer under the control of the government in Kiev.

“The situation in the war zones is catastrophic. There is hunger. More than 80 people have already died of it in Luhansk and Donetsk,” emphasized Bishop Shyrokoradiuk, who is also the director of Caritas Ukraine, during a talk with employees of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need.

The Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizha is one of six Roman Catholic dioceses in Ukraine. Most of the Catholics in the country who are in communion with Rome are members of the Ukraine-Greek Catholic Church.

According to Bishop Shyrokoradiuk, more than 18 million people live in his diocese, including about 60,000 Roman-Catholic Christians.

“We are a missionary Church,” he said. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t have a single parish; today, there are more than 50. The faithful have Ukrainian, Polish, Russian as well as Vietnamese roots.”

The parochial work of the diocese is focused on pastoral as well as social and humanitarian tasks. “We receive shipments of relief supplies and medicine from Western Europe. We need this help, Christian solidarity, but also political aid,” said Bishop Shyrokoradiuk.

He is worried about the rising tide of refugees from the war zones, estimating there are more than 20,000 in Kharkiv at this time.

“We are trying to help where we can. Just a few weeks ago, we were at least able to give 300 pairs of shoes to children.”

But Bishop Shyrokoradiuk’s influence is limited. To his knowledge, the aid intended for people in the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk does not reach those in need.


Western Ukraine

In western Ukraine, Bishop Vitaliy Skomarovsky of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lutsk also sees the consequences of the battles in the east.

“The war may seem far away. But, in reality, many young men from the western part of the country have joined the war. Just recently, a row of fir trees was felled in the cemetery of Lutsk to bury 13 young soldiers.”

Other cities have also buried soldiers killed in the line of duty. According to Bishop Skomarovsky, the Church is taking care of the bereaved as well as those families whose fathers have gone east as soldiers.

“The war is ever present. We notice that financial resources are being used for it; many things in the social sector have been stopped. However, people are now doing a lot more on their own initiative; solidarity is growing among the people,” Bishop Skomarovsky said.

Warm clothing, among other things, has been collected, because many soldiers in the east are inadequately equipped and feel as though they have been abandoned.

With 35 parishes and 25,000 faithful, the Diocese of Lutsk is the smallest Roman-Catholic diocese in Ukraine. Until World War II, it was part of the Polish territory of Volhynia.

Ukrainian nationalists carried out a number of massacres of the predominantly Polish population in the region, beginning in mid-July 1943. These were tolerated by the German occupying forces. More than 50,000 people were killed.

As a result of the massacres, many Catholic parishes are still deserted today.

Bishop Skomarovsky commented, “A very, very large number of people participated in the memorial Mass held at the cemetery of Skirche on July 11, 2014. However, I don’t feel any tension among the new young generation.”

In Ukraine, which is populated by many different demographic groups, this is a sign of hope of reconciliation.

Said Bishop Shyrokoradiuk, “We hope for peace, because many people are praying for it.”