Ukrainian soldiers seek solace in faith and prayer

Ukrainian soldiers seek solace in faith and prayer

The ways of the Lord are inscrutable, according to the Bible. However, on the eastern front of Ukraine, one of its representatives borrows them in an old blue Lada.

"I bought it to be more mobile, to go to the front to pray with the soldiers," said Mykola Berezyk, chaplain of the 95th Air Assault Brigade.

With his camouflage clothes and his big winter boots, he looks like many Ukrainian soldiers fighting the Russian army in the Donbass.

"Father Mykola" does not carry a machine gun: his only protection is a large silver cross hanging from a heavy chain around his neck.

The Ukrainian Orthodox priest opens the trunk of his Lada to pull out a large pewter bowl for holy water, a packet of fine candles and a briefcase containing his Bible.

The 28-year-old balding young man says he first felt a spiritual call to the priesthood when he started attending church services 10 years ago as he searched for meaning in life.

But he eventually worked in construction, then joined a Ukrainian army artillery unit for three years until 2020, when Kiev was fighting Moscow-led separatists in the east.

When Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, he returned to the front line. In August 2022, he was injured by shrapnel that lodged two centimeters from his heart.

On his hospital bed, he had a "revelation" that his duty was now to spiritually care for his brothers in arms.

"The war has shown us that it is not enough to feed and equip soldiers and give them weapons," he told AFP. "They also need spiritual support."

Lucky charm

When exhausted paratroopers return from the front line to the house where they are quartered, Mykola is there. Men remove their caps as a sign of respect.

Under a flashing light, the priest welcomes them, dressed in a black cassock covered with red and gold liturgical ornaments.

"The whole world should know that we are not just fighting with guns but with the word of God," he said. "We fight on the battlefield with our heart and soul."

Bulletproof vests and rifles lean against the wall. Soldiers genuflect and a sweet smell of incense escapes from a golden censer.

Biblical passages are read, the priest prays for peace. He implores divine protection for the servicemen of the unit and blesses them by sprinkling them with holy water and anointing their foreheads with oil.

Private "Tikhiy", 37, has a few Christmas tree decorations and children's toys stuffed in his pockets for luck on the battlefield.

Prayer before battle works as an additional talisman, he believes. "It makes you absolutely calm," continues the soldier.

And "after the fight, it feels like a weight has been lifted from your soul," adds one of his comrades, Zalizny, 28.

"It's very hard"

As the paratroopers slip into their sleeping bags, another unit prepares to go to the front line. This time the prayers are said outside.

For Cook, 40, these ceremonies are an important part of Ukraine's existential battle.

Russia may have more weapons, he says, but stronger faith gives Ukraine the edge.

"I know that Ukraine will be saved", assures "Cook". "It's very hard but we will hold on".

For Privates Dmytro, 28, and Tankie, 21, faith provides troops with the comfort and support they need in the face of the horrors of war.

Father Mykola, for his part, reflects on the violation of the central moral prohibition of Christianity: "Thou shalt not kill".

For him, without a doubt, the Ukrainian troops have morality on their side because they defend their family, their friends and their country.

“There are many events in history where the weaker army defeats the stronger one with the help of God,” the priest points out. “We will defeat our enemy with our crosses on our vehicles and God above. above".

The Editorial Board (with AFP)

Image credit: AFP/ Yasuyoshi Chiba

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