Four years of fighting in eastern Ukraine have led to “the biggest humanitarian crisis on the European continent since the end of the Second World War,” according to the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv called on the international community and the Catholic Church not to neglect the crisis in Ukraine. He made the plea during his keynote address at the Knights of Columbus convention in Baltimore on August 7.
Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Ukrainian conflict has taken the lives of more than 10,000 people and has left 1.6 million people displaced, according to the United Nations.
“Besides all these casualties and human tragedies, there is still another hidden danger of the war in eastern Ukraine: This region is at risk of suffering a dire, long-lasting ecological catastrophe due to flooded mines and contaminated drinking water, which is comparable in scale to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster of 1986,” warned the archbishop.
“As many as 4 million people might be left without safe drinking water in the region,” he continued, “all of this is happening right now, in Ukraine, the largest country in Europe.”
The fighting has also damaged basic infrastructure. The World Health Organization documented multiple attacks on Ukraine’s hospitals between 2014 and 2016.
“This is a silent and forgotten war. Because it is a ‘frozen conflict,’ no one speaks loudly about the war in Ukraine anymore,” said the archbishop.
Although a standing cease-fire exists in Ukraine, it was violated over 1,200 times in one week in July, reported the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring mission in Ukraine.
“Many specialists nowadays call this war in Ukraine a ‘hybrid war,’ that is, a war where not only traditional weapons are used on battlefields, but where all means of destruction, including economic and information warfare, are employed,” explained the archbishop, “Thanks to information technologies, modern wars are not limited to specific territories.”
“Everyone in the Western world today experiences the consequences of this information war, which targets truth by disseminating ‘fake news’ and molding public opinion according to dishonest goals. Unfortunately, not even your country or other developed countries in Western Europe have been spared from these attacks. Please remember: it is not only our war — it is the war for humanity!” said Shevchuk.
The Catholic Response
“How does the Catholic Church in Ukraine, and in particular our Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, respond to the needs of the millions of people suffering from the consequences of war?” Shevchuk asked the Knights of Columbus.
The archbishop’s response was “diakonia,” the Greek New Testament term for charitable service. In the case of Ukraine, “diakonia” entails “serving to one’s neighbor, taking care of those afflicted by the war, by providing them with spiritual guidance and often with social service as well,” he said.
“Charity is an antidote to egoism and indifference. I would say that charity is also a key to understanding the success of the Knights of Columbus in Ukraine,” he continued.
The Knights of Columbus are a relatively new presence in Ukraine. The country’s first Knights of Columbus council was established five years ago -- just before Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
Today the Knights in Ukraine have dedicated much of their charitable efforts to aiding local civilians affected by the violence in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Knights of Columbus organize summer rehabilitation camps for wounded soldiers, war veterans, and their families. They regularly visit the wounded in hospitals, fundraise for first aid equipment, and provide the disabled with free wheelchairs. One Knights of Columbus council in southeastern Ukraine runs a Christian youth summer camp for children living in immediate proximity to the combat zone.
“Our society probably does not yet realize the full scale of trauma caused by the war and that is why we, as a Church and as Knights of Columbus, need to invest so much of our energy and resources into the field of rehabilitation, in order to be able to heal the wounds of our people,” said Shevchuk.
Catholics are a minority in Ukraine, most of the local population are Orthodox Christians. The archbishop said that he was encouraged to see how both Roman and Greek Catholics work together in the Knights of Columbus. He said it shows “a wonderful example of the unity of the Catholic Church in Ukraine, so much needed in Ukrainian society today.”
On August 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko over the phone, reassuring him of U.S. support for Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.
A few weeks earlier, the State Department released the Crimea Declaration calling on Russia to to end its occupation of Crimea, saying, “The United States rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and pledges to maintain this policy until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.”
In the meantime, the Knights of Columbus in Ukraine will continue to aid the those suffering from the violence.