On Ash Wednesday, as the Pope called Catholics to fasting and prayer for peace at the start of the penitential season of Lent, we spoke to Taras Dzyubanskyy in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv near the border with Poland.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people are massed on the border trying to escape the war.
Taras, from the Ukrainian Catholic University and Libertas Centre for interreligious Dialogue, talks to us from a parish on the outskirts of Lviv.
Parishioners are working hard to cook food, collect clothes, build supplies of medicines and medical equipment to help the endless flow of people heading for Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.
Although he describes Lviv as “relatively calm”, many desperate people are streaming into the region from the east, and, as we conclude our short interview, the air raid sirens ring out warning of potential strikes.
Please keep Taras and all the people affected by the war in your prayers.
So I’m based in the Western Ukraine, in Lviv. It’s relatively calm here. It’s much better than what’s going on in the east of Ukraine, in the Donbas, also in Kyiv, which is being bombed and shelled with rockets and missiles falling down on civilians, on the hospitals, on kindergartens, on schools. So the situation is really terrible there.
Here in Lviv, we have thousands of people from the east, from Kyiv and from other regions of Ukraine flocking actually to the western borders – to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania. They’re trying to get out of the country and they are afraid for their safety. They are afraid for their lives.
As you know, most of the embassies have transferred their personnel here to Lviv because they see it as a safer place now. So in my area on the outskirts of the city, in the background you can see the church, the newly-built church, and also here by my side, that’s the school where I studied many years ago.
The people here in the parish, they make food, gather clothing and a lot of medicines and medical equipment to be distributed among the soldiers, among the military, but also for the people who are flocking here as Internally Displaced People and refugees.
You know, this spiritual solidarity we felt from the very beginning of the Russian invasion. We’ve been getting so many messages from all over the world. I have many friends in the UK, I have friends in North America, in South America – practically everywhere. And everybody sends their messages, their prayers for peace, prayers for the people of Ukraine.
Basically we are all Ukrainian now, not in a political sense, but Ukrainian in the sense of fighting for freedom, praying for peace and hoping for peace.
Q: Talking about prayer, Pope Francis has called for a day of prayer and fasting for Ukraine today and for peace. What should we be focusing our prayers on exactly, do you think?
I think the prayers, of course, should be for the safety of the people, for their wellbeing, but also we should pray for the conversion of hearts. Because, you know, in Christianity conversion is such an important thing and we should pray for the conversion of the aggressor, we should pray for the conversion of their hearts and minds, because as long as the aggressor is aggressing and violently attacking the people, we cannot expect peace.
So prayers should go both ways, prayers for peace for the people of Ukraine, for the situation here on the ground, but also for the people in Russia, because so many of them, they are either ignorant of the situation or there has been so much propaganda in this past decade that they are just not able to distinguish what is right and what is wrong. Especially the role of the media that has been there for this terrible conflict. A lot of people in Russia, they don’t have access to information, the right information, that’s why they cannot really distinguish what is reality and what is fake.
Q: You’re a man of dialogue. I look at your title at the Libertas Centre for Interreligious Dialogue. Do you remain convinced that there is a path to peace involving dialogue where the madness can end and we can get back to talking and cooperating with each other?
Of course, definitely. I see dialogue – a very, very important dialogue – as being fundamental. Of course, in the time when you’re attacked, when people fight for their safety and security, the word “dialogue” for many people, it seems to lose its essence. It seems to be something unimaginable. How can we dialogue? Who do we dialogue with? But still, I’m very much convinced that dialogue is the way to go if you want to achieve peace.
Also a lot of people who took part in many of our dialogue sessions and training programmes in the past, they are the people who really radiate so much humanity, although, of course, we cannot be in dialogue now on the academic or theoretical level. But dialogue is the way to go.
Q: Obviously it’s Ash Wednesday, it’s the start of Lent. It’s a time where we should all be thinking and reflecting and praying for peace. What would your message be to the Catholics in England and Wales that are feeling quite helpless at the moment? What would you say to them?
I lived in Wales, in the UK, for some time. I did my studies there and I have so many wonderful friends who’ve been sending so many messages and prayers, and they’ve been having vigils in England and Wales. So my message is please continue to pray for us. And if you have a chance to help to deal with this humanitarian crisis, also, we’ll send you some links where you can actually make donations so we can help alleviate the suffering of the people. But please continue praying for us, and I’m sure that the ‘good’ will win at the end and peace will prevail.
Well, Taras, I appreciate your time today, and obviously we’re praying for you. We’re praying hard. We’re handing this to God because we do feel quite powerless in this. But, yes, please do send us the links so we can do some material things, we can support spiritually, and we can just stand in solidarity with you as you face this terrible situation right now. Hopefully, God willing, we’ll be able to speak in happier times in the weeks to come.
Thank you so much, James. And now, as we are speaking, I can hear the sirens going out, so we are sort of getting used to them because there’s a danger of an air attack. Hopefully that will not happen.