Australian Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy vicar general Fr Simon Ckuj said his community was apprehensive and angry as Russia escalated its military action in Ukraine.
Fr Ckuj was able to talk to friends in Ukraine where lines of communication remained open.
“They want peace,” he said.
“They don’t want their lives destroyed, they don’t want war, they don’t want an invasion.
“Ukraine has done nothing to deserve a full scale attack by Putin and his army.
“I think most people are just stunned that something like this could happen in 2022 in Europe.”
The situation in Ukraine has developed rapidly over February but war had been raging for eight years already.
More than 15,000 Ukrainians have died.
Included among the death toll were the 27 Australians aboard MH-17, which was shot down over Ukraine in 2014.
Fr Ckuj, whose grandparents on both sides came from western Ukraine where the majority of Ukrainian Catholics live, saw the catastrophe of MH-17 as a moment for Australians and Ukrainians to bond and see the present dangers of Russian aggression.
“It (MH-17) is something that affected Australians greatly and unfortunately put Ukraine on the map for many Australians,” he said.
Fr Ckuj said despite claims from Russian propaganda, this “was never a civil war, it’s always been a war of active aggression of another state, run via proxies in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”.
“These are not Ukrainians who are rebelling against the state.
“It’s a puppet regime run by Russians and armed by Russians.”
In the last few months, the conflict has escalated over Russia’s move to deny Ukraine entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
Western powers refused to deny them entry into NATO.
The tensions boiled over on February 21, when Russian President Vladimir Putin made an address to his nation in which he recognised the two separatist groups as sovereign states and ordered troops to cross the Russian-Ukrainian border.
In the address, Mr Putin denied that Ukraine ever existed as a country.
“Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood,” he said.
“There has never been a sustainable statehood in Ukraine.”
Fr Ckuj said Mr Putin’s speech distressed his community deeply.
“For Putin to turn around and say that Ukraine has never existed, well that’s just delusional and very concerning for the people,” he said.
“They’re distressed because they know what Putin is capable of – he’s been slicing off pieces of Ukraine starting with Crimea eight years ago.”
Fr Ckuj said his community want to see decisive action from the international community.
He said military aid, financial aid, humanitarian aid and heavy sanctions were needed against Russian and its elites, who he said had bled Russia dry.
“One of the sad things about this is that people forget that the Russian people themselves are suffering,” he said.
“Russia is not a free state, there are no free elections there is no free media and there is no legal opposition.
“The saddest thing is Ukrainian mothers will receive their sons’ coffins knowing that they were defending their homeland, Russian mothers will receive their sons’ coffins not knowing why they died.”
Fr Ckuj said all signs point to Mr Putin making a move onto Kyiv, the nation’s capital.
He said it was “too horrible to contemplate” that a massive invasion like that could take place currently.
“For a lot of the older community members, it has brought back horrible memories of the Second World War that they survived,” he said.
“For years, Ukraine was an occupied country – our Church was illegal, it was banned by the Soviet Union.
“We thought we had freedom and now it looks like our freedom will be taken away again.”
He called on Catholics “to storm Heaven with prayers”.
“Ukraine is a very religious country, its people have a very great sense of their faith and of their traditions of their faith,” he said.
“Prayer and knowing the whole world is praying for this is very important.”
He also called on Australian Catholics to learn more about Ukraine – its culture, Christian history and the current geopolitical situation.
“Ukraine is a peaceful and freedom loving country, whilst not a perfect democracy, it’s very hard to shake off 70 years of communist rule in a generation,” Fr Ckuj said.
“It’ll take a long time to undo the evils that communism was and Russian occupation was.”
Reproduced with permission from The Catholic Leader, the news publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.