RICHARD PENDLEBURY witnesses solidarity and defiance in Kyiv as religious leaders come together

Central Kyiv, a little before 8am yesterday. It should have been the start of the morning rush hour in this once vibrant city of almost three million people. Yet the streets were empty, and an eerie calm prevailed.

This owed little to the deadening effect of a steady snowfall. Rather, it was the expression of a growing sense of dread; the fear of impending onslaught from a military behemoth that lurks only a few miles north of the city limit and is poised to strike at its heart.

Those Kyivans who had not yet fled were warned to shelter at home.

Ukraine stands on the edge of the precipice. The Russian bombs and rockets are currently falling most on Kharkiv, Kherson and Mariupol. But it is here, the capital, where this nation’s fate will be decided.

The questions are how and when. For many it is a time for prayer.

The Byzantine cathedral of St Sophia has stood beside the Dnieper river for more than 1,000 years – an often tempestuous millennium. With its golden cupolas, fabulous mosaics and frescos, the cathedral is Ukraine’s most iconic and beloved structure. 

A rallying point and inspiration when danger threatens the common good. And so it was, once again, this morning. I was one of a handful of observers permitted to witness a powerful and moving expression of faith.

Ukraine's Minister of Internal Affairs Denys Monastyrsky is pictured being blessed at St Sophia's Cathedral, in Kyiv

Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs Denys Monastyrsky is pictured being blessed at St Sophia’s Cathedral, in Kyiv

As the warning sirens wailed, the leaders of Ukraine’s religious faiths came together, privately, in the heart of the great church to demonstrate solidarity and pray for the deliverance of their country in its hour of need.

Among them were the most senior Orthodox clerics, the heads of the Greek and Roman Catholic faiths, Protestant denominations, the Jewish community and the Mufti of Ukraine, the most senior Muslim in the country.

In two lines, face to face along St Sophia’s chancel, the holy men took turns to recite prayers for peace and for Ukraine.

Those in attendance included several senior figures in the Ukrainian government. Interior minister Denys Monastyrsky is a marked man as far as the Kremlin is concerned, and he had come to church wearing a bulletproof vest, accompanied by a bodyguard carrying an assault rifle. 

There followed an extraordinary vignette in which Bishop Vitalii Kryvytskyi, head of the Roman Catholic diocese of Kyiv-Zhytomyr, stepped forward and placed his right hand flat on the chest of Mr Monastyrsky’s body armour.

Eyes closed, the prelate began to pray for him, in the manner of the benediction of a medieval warrior before battle.

‘All church and religious leaders understand that our power lies not only in weapons and military forces,’ the bishop told me afterwards.

‘All of us here are believers. We know that the last word is that of God. We know we are called to support our nation in this crucial moment. We cannot be anywhere else.’ 

Ukrainian civilians at Kyiv's main railway station flee the advance of the invading Russian military

Ukrainian civilians at Kyiv’s main railway station flee the advance of the invading Russian military

Standing beside the bishop, Sheikh Ahmed Tamim, the Mufti of Ukraine, added: ‘What you see here is so important. Would you see this kind of brotherhood among different faiths in any other country?’

In recent years, there has been a schism in the Orthodox Church between the Moscow Patriarchate – seen as being close to Putin – and the newly independent Ukrainian branch.

But on Tuesday, more than 150 Russian Orthodox clerics put their names to an open letter calling for an immediate stop to the war in Ukraine.

The clerics were quoted as saying they ‘respect the freedom of any person given to him or her by God’, adding that the people of Ukraine ‘must make their own choices by themselves, not at the point of assault rifles and without pressure from either West or East’.

Oleksii Dniprov, deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, was also present at St Sophia’s yesterday.

‘It is a very strange time, very difficult, but I am sure we will win,’ he said. ‘We have the support of the whole of the world. That is very important to us as we face this huge threat to our existence.’

He said of the church: ‘St Sophia’s is not just a cathedral… it is the most important building in the culture of our country. When St Sophia is here, Ukraine exists.’

He continued: ‘We are fighting and we are strong. Every hour I receive messages of support from all over the world. It is an awful situation, but we will prevail.’

These are unnerving times but surely, I thought, the Russian’s won’t hit St Sophia’s?

A view of smoke from inside a damaged gym following shelling in Kyiv

A view of smoke from inside a damaged gym following shelling in Kyiv

The Ukrainian authorities are not so sure. They have sent a letter to UNESCO, asking the body which compiles the list of World Heritage sites – St Sophia’s is one – to speak out now to save the cathedral from the threat of destruction. 

Ukraine’s minister of culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko, has warned on social media that ‘the Russians are going to destroy St Sophia… they seek to destroy the entire Ukrainian history, trying to appropriate it for themselves’. 

I spoke to his colleague Mr Monastyrsky as he was leaving the church. ‘You are facing a grave threat,’ I told the interior minister. ‘We are ready,’ he replied in English. And out he strode, back into the existential struggle for his country’s future.

Last night a large explosion shook central Kyiv. The interior ministry said a Russian rocket strike near the main railway station had destroyed a large heating main, and could leave portions of the city without heat.

With temperatures at night hovering around freezing, the people of Kyiv face more difficult hours before the dawn.

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