On a dreary Sunday morning, with the sirens momentarily silenced even because the thumps of distant battles reverberated overhead, roughly 100 individuals straggled into the Seraphim Sarovsky church, on the sting of this metropolis on the fringe of battle.
Few spoke — and even whispered — as they walked with subdued, timid steps previous the church’s outer arch and into its ornate confines, genuflecting and kneeling earlier than the altar or kissing the icon of Seraphim Sarovsky. Others lit candles, their eyes misplaced within the motion of the flames.
For the worshippers gathered right here, together with some 30 million of their fellow Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, this was Palm Sunday. In years previous, this may have been a joyous celebration; however now, with the Russian military assembling its forces a mere 20 miles away and Sloviansk firmly in its crosshairs, the ceremony was extra about consolation than commemoration, a second to hunt refuge in an often-repeated routine.
“Our house isn’t removed from right here. Final evening was loud, with numerous shelling, so after all I’m nervous,” mentioned Stas, a person in his 40s who gave solely his first identify for causes of privateness. He added that he couldn’t depart, as a result of his mom was bedridden and the journey to some form of sanctuary was not one thing she might stand up to. Beside him stood his spouse, Eugenia, and his 5-year-old son, Daniel. “We got here to church to calm ourselves, to calm our son.”
Many had come for a similar purpose, seeing in prayer some form of insurance coverage to guard them from the battle now at their doorstep. The service drew even those that usually wouldn’t come to church, comparable to Valeri. A younger man, he purchased a votive candle, wanting nervous as he approached the holder.
“What ought to I do with this candle?” he requested a parishioner, earlier than one of many caretakers, an aged girl, took him to the candle holder and helped him gentle it.
“I by no means come to church,” he mentioned, explaining that his household was in Sloviansk and didn’t need to depart. “I don’t know what’s going to occur, and I’m actually afraid,” he mentioned. “So I got here right here.”
Moments later, Valeri Lebed, a white-haired parish priest with an august-looking beard and a gold-brocaded inexperienced gown, emerged from a door behind the altar, trailing embers as he swung an incense burner from side to side. He traced a path across the worshippers — a few of them males, most of them girls donning scarves in vivid colours and floral patterns — earlier than returning to the altar and starting the service with a Bible studying recounting Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
He made no point out of the battle, maybe not desirous to deliver a bitter observe for these searching for solace right here. But elsewhere within the Christian world, the battle appeared inescapable.
On Easter Sunday, chatting with a packed St. Peter’s Sq. the place some 100,000 individuals gathered to listen to his geopolitical “Urbi et Orbi” (to town and to the world) speech, Pope Francis pleaded for an finish to the battle, calling for individuals “to not get used to battle” at the same time as he leveled criticism towards Russia with out mentioning its identify.
“Our eyes, too, are incredulous on this Easter of battle,” he mentioned. “We now have seen all an excessive amount of blood, all an excessive amount of violence. Our hearts, too, have been full of worry and anguish, as so lots of our brothers and sisters have needed to lock themselves away in an effort to be protected from bombing.
“Might there be peace for war-torn Ukraine, so sorely tried by the violence and destruction of this merciless and mindless battle into which it was dragged.”
The primary a part of his liturgy concluded, Lebed returned to behind the altar as a trio of girls standing within the balcony above started to sing. Their voices resonated in concord, ringing by the church in a call-and-response with Lebed and the church’s deacon, Roman.
“God have mercy on us,” they repeated, the individuals bowing and elevating their head to mark the verses.
After Communion, the parishioners, many carrying bunches of willow branches wrapped in twine, congregated earlier than the altar as Lebed picked up the aspergillum, a brush he used to sprinkle holy water. They got here separately, elevating their branches above their head whereas Lebed dipped the aspergillum into a close-by basin and swung it in a strong arc towards every supplicant, inundating their department and face with the water.
And so it was the top of the service. Most left shortly, leaving just a few to linger over selfmade pierogies, espresso and tea even because the caretakers mopped up the holy water and snuffed out the candles. Standing earlier than the church’s turquoise partitions, Roman, the deacon, mentioned he anticipated extra individuals to come back subsequent Sunday, when Orthodox Christians rejoice Easter.
“We don’t have any worry. We didn’t in 2014 both,” he mentioned, referring to the clashes that noticed Moscow-backed separatists take Sloviansk earlier than authorities fighters clawed it again. As he spoke, Daniel rode his bicycle within the churchyard.
“We aren’t going to depart. My religion makes me courageous,” he mentioned. “What do I want to fret about if I’ve my religion in God?”