The Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops took place in Sydney on 5-12 May, with the participation of all Catholic bishops, including Bishop Mykola Bychok, Eparch of Melbourne.

Christ is Risen!

Your Excellency,

Dear Brother Bishops,

Today I want to share with you the pain of my people and my homeland, who for two months and a half have been suffering from a terrible war defending Ukraine from Russian aggression.

On the 25th of January this year, almost a month before the war began, I addressed the Catholic Bishops of Australia and all people of good will with a message titled “Pray for peace and justice in Ukraine. Be informed. Support the suffering.” The purpose of this appeal was to call on the entire Catholic Church in Australia to intensify prayer for peace in Ukraine and to show the consequences of the hybrid war that had been fought in Eastern Ukraine since 2014.

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We believed and hoped for peace, but on the 24th of February the invasion began. I don’t think we imagined that something like this could happen in the 21st century in a supposedly civilized world. People think that this war started on the 24th of February 2022, but it actually started in March 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. The world’s reaction to this occupation was almost “zero”, Russia then launched a hybrid war in eastern Ukraine in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. As a result of the 2014 war, more than 15,000 people have been killed, tens of thousands wounded and about 2 million internally displaced people from the eastern part of Ukraine to central and western parts of Ukraine. The war has been going on for nine years, but the last two months have been marked by horrific brutality that we have not seen since World War II.

From the very beginning of this expanded war, the full scale and aggressive invasion, Russia tried to convinced everyone that in 3 days they would conquer Ukraine. Russia had even prepared a ceremonial military uniform for the “victory” parade in Kyiv; so fooled were they by their own ego and propaganda. However, after this initial plan failed to materialize, the aggressors began bombing civilian targets, attacking vital infrastructure so as to do as much damage as possible and instilling even greater terror in the Ukrainian population.

It is ironic that the enemy planned to celebrate their victory in three days in the capital Kyiv. Russia thought that they would quickly destroy and subdue the whole Ukrainian nation, but their insidious plans were broken by the heroism of our army and our people.

St. John Chrysostom in his Easter sermon says: “Took man and came across God. Took the earth and encountered heaven. Captured the seen and fell before the unseen.” In the same way, our enemy took what they saw, but fell because of what they did not see – the strength of spirit, faith, and love of our people!

Russia is trying to intimidate us with their cruise missiles, bombs and artillery shells. They are trying to drive us into hiding so that everyone forgets about us. But it is in those cellars and bunkers, a miracle takes place – common prayer, sacrificial help to one’s neighbour, indomitable spirit and manifestation of the power of God’s presence.

The whole world was shocked by what the Russian army left after 52 days of occupation in the cities of Bucha, Borodyanka, Gostomel, Irpin and many other towns in Ukraine. The armed forces of the Russian Federation have behaved with extreme cruelty, war crimes under international law – crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression. They kidnapped and deprived people of their liberty, shot people in the head, raped girls, children, and women in front of their relatives, tortured people, mocked the bodies of the dead and tortured, deliberately attacked civilians, medics, shelters, destroyed buildings, used civilians as hostages to protect themselves.

Since the beginning of the war, the city of Mariupol, located in south-eastern part of Ukraine on the coast of the Azov Sea, has become known around the world for its constant bombing. This city was founded by Greek migrants. When you look at the meaning of this city, it translates as “City of Mary” (Μαρία – which means Mary, and πόλη – which means city). So, this city is in a special way under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, in whose honour it was named. The population of this city is 430,000 inhabitants. For two months and a half, the whole world has been watching this city and there is nothing it can do to save civilians by creating an evacuation corridor for them. No one can even imagine how many civilians they tortured and how many victims there are in Mariupol, but it is probably tens of thousands of people. 98% of the city has been destroyed. Russian forces have almost levelled it to the ground.

The horror of the Mariupol Drama Theatre cannot be forgotten! There were about a thousand children with their mothers who used the large theatre as a shelter. On the ground in front of this building the word “CHILDREN” was written in large letters in Russian, which could be seen from the sky. This was done so that the Russian army would not bomb this building. Unfortunately, even that did not stop the Russians. They completely destroyed this theatre, and killed countless women and children. To this day, there are many mothers with their children in the Mariupol shelters. They have not seen the sun since the beginning of the war, as they are forced to hide in shelters to save their lives.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is genocide of our people. The occupier wants to enslave us again, as they have done many times in the history of our nation. For centuries, Russia has persecuted our intellectual and ecclesiastical life. It is important to remember the Holodomor of 1932-33, in which about 10 million Ukrainians died, 3 million of them were children. In the 1940s and 1950s, several million Ukrainians were deported and forcibly relocated to Siberia. The ideologues of Russia’s war against Ukraine openly say that our existence is a historical mistake that must be corrected through death and destruction. This war is against the very right of the Ukrainian people to their history, language, culture, church, to their independent state, and ultimately to their existence.

St. Paul reminds us that we must be vigilant so that in the midst of the horrors of war we remain human and do not fall into the devil’s trap of malice and hatred: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh, rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal. 5,13-14). There is a noticeable difference between the Ukrainian army, which defends its native land, and which treats prisoners humanely. Unfortunately, this is not visible in the Russian army, which tortures, kills, and cannot even take away the bodies of their dead soldiers. Many Russian soldiers surrender to Ukrainians because they treat Russian soldiers better than Russia treats its own soldiers.

According to the latest data, every 5th Ukrainian is now a refugee. We already have about 9 million Ukrainian refugees: 5 million have gone abroad to Europe (3 million of them to Poland) and we have 4 million internally displaced persons scattered across the country. Analysts fear that the number of refugees from Ukraine could reach 12 million in the coming weeks.

Another very important aspect in this war is the use of the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kiril gave his blessing at the beginning of this war, consecrating an icon and presenting it to a general of the Russian Army. On the eve of the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ, there was a proposal to stop the war for a few days. However, Russia rejected the offer, showing the world how little, they want peace. On the 24th of April, the Russian president was present at the patriarchal Easter service and held a candle. At the same time, the Russian armed forces were bombing Ukraine. For the first time during this war, air raid sirens were heard in every city of Ukraine. Hundreds of people died in just one day at Easter, including a 3-month-old baby in Odesa.

The consequences of this war cannot be fully calculated, but they are horrific: tens of thousands killed, tens of thousands wounded, broken families, one million people forcibly deported to Russia, psychological trauma, social and economic losses. It will take decades to rebuild. It is also worth noting that the losses of the Russian army in this war are immense. In just two and a half months, they have lost more than in a years of war in Afghanistan and Syria combined.

I am sincerely grateful to the Holy Father, Pope Francis for his support and prayer for peace in Ukraine. Despite what happened on Good Friday during the Way of the Cross in Rome, where a Ukrainian woman and a Russian woman carried the cross together and called us to reconciliation, even as the enemy mercilessly shot at Ukrainian people.

I sincerely thank the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for the official appeal and call for peace in Ukraine, which was issued on the 26th of February. I received many phone calls, letters of support and assurances of prayerful unity with our people from you. For this I and the Ukrainian people in Australia are truly grateful.

I would also like to express my sincere gratitude to Caritas Australia and to all dioceses for raising funds for the humanitarian support of our people and refugees. More than 4 million dollars has already been raised during this time. These funds save lives. Here is just one example from our church in Kharkiv, where volunteers feed 1,500 people, who have nothing to eat or drink, every day from all over the district. And all this happens thanks to Caritas aid.

I thank the Government of Australia for responding positively to both humanitarian and military assistance to Ukraine. A separate refugee assistance program has been developed with the Australian Government. This path looks like this. Every Ukrainian can apply for a tourist visa for a period of 3 months, which Australia issues in 1 day. Then, when a person arrives in Australia, they can apply for a humanitarian visa valid for 3 years, which covers Medicare, education, and a work permit. When the war in Ukraine ends, people will have the choice to return to Ukraine or stay in Australia and receive permanent residence. To date, the Australian Government has issued more than 7,000 visas, of which 3,000 have already flown to Australia (1,500 of them are in NSW, 1,000 of them are in VIC and 500 of them are in other states).

Dear brother bishops! I urge the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to issue another document in support of Ukraine and our Church. Please continue to pray for peace in Ukraine in your dioceses. We need the generous hand of your help for Ukraine as well as for refugees from Ukraine who have already arrived in Australia. Please open your schools for Ukrainian children, help Ukrainians to find work and support them in their new place of settlement.

It is very symbolic that I have my speech to you on 9th of May because today Russia celebrates the victory day. Today is 75th day of the war. We Ukrainians together with the Apostle Paul say: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not abandoned, struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4,8-9).

In conclusion, I would like to share with you a witness of our soldiers, who have thanked us for our many prayers. They feel uplifted by God in this war. The soldiers asked us not to stop praying. Moreover, they said that this evil force could not be defeated only in a military way, but rather, in a spiritual way through sincere prayer and repentance.

May the Our Lady of the Perpetual Help intercede and protect Ukraine and ask her Son, Jesus Our Lord, to grant the long-awaited peace to our country and the world!