London interfaith service marks second anniversary of Ukraine invasion

Image credit: Roman Catholic Church of The Holy Family in Exile (Ukranian)

By Catherine Pepinster

An interfaith prayer service for peace, a march through London and a Trafalgar Square vigil for the war dead are being organised tomorrow (Saturday 24 February) to mark the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The aggression has left thousands of Ukrainian refugees in Britain suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Catholic Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski.

The bishop, whose cathedral of the Holy Family in Exile hosts the interfaith service, says many Ukrainians are coping with the deep traumas caused by having to flee their country, lose their homes and have families left behind, including those in the Ukrainian forces killed by Russian troops.

About 280,000 refugees have been taken in by the UK, with thousands offered homes by British families. Although many have attempted to build a life here, finding accommodation, getting jobs and learning English, they remain deeply distressed, Bishop Nowakowski said.

“At first adrenaline kept them going but when that stops life is difficult,” he said. “Any loud noise puts them on edge. The past two years have been horrific.” But, he added, Ukrainians in the UK have felt supported by Britain and are hopeful they can eventually return home.

Until the Russian invasion, the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Exile was a small enterprise but its work has been transformed by the pastoral challenges of helping refugees. Since the refugees arrived, attendance at mass has risen at the cathedral with more than 3,000 joining the Sunday service.

The church is not only a focal point for practising Catholics but also other refugees for whom it offers a link with their own culture. The cathedral’s welcome centre, which provides English language classes and advice on employment and benefits, now has five full-time staff and 40 volunteers. Home Office officials also attend to give advice to refugees.

Bishop Nowakowski paid tribute to other faith communities that have shown solidarity with Ukrainians, to the government and local authorities for their response and to King Charles, who has visited his cathedral twice. As the Prince of Wales, his first visit came a week after the invasion, and helped to draw attention to the plight of Ukraine. It led to large donations that helped to get its welcome centre up and running, the bishop said.

Another early visitor was Boris Johnson, when he was prime minister, who discussed plans to bring refugees to Britain. “Our welcome centre exists because of British goodwill,” the bishop said. “It is an oasis for Ukrainians in a very hospitable country.”

Contact with the Foreign Office has continued and there have been two meetings with Rishi Sunak, as well as with faith leaders. According to Bishop Nowakowski, visits to Ukraine by faith leaders, such as the one this month by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, are vital for keeping attention on the war and for boosting morale.

During his visit, Archbishop Welby said: “The long-term vision must be for stability and security, justice, healing, and reconciliation. That also was Churchill’s vision after the Second World War. It is in that sense of winning the peace that we say the first step must be to win the war.”

Pope Francis has sometimes been criticised for not speaking out enough about Ukraine because he is trying to also keep contact open with Russia, especially the Orthodox Church.  But according to Bishop Nowakowski, who is a member of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, “Pope Francis has made reference to and prayed for Ukraine 275 times since the invasion — more than any other world leader.” Last year Ukrainian bishops from all around the world had a meeting with the Pope which he extended from 45 minutes to two hours.

Representatives from all the main denominations will attend the interfaith prayer service tomorrow, apart from the Church of England whose official representatives are attending the General Synod. There will also be no involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church in London: there is no contact with them and relations have been strained between the Orthodox Church in London and the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral since Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014.

Recent Saturdays in London have seen huge marches urging a ceasefire in Gaza. According to Bishop Nowakowski, the media might have sometimes focused attention more on Gaza than Ukraine in recent months but “Ukraine is not off the agenda of the churches, the government, local authorities helping refugees or volunteers. Ukrainian flags are still flying in solidarity across Britain,” he said, “and I know prayers are still being said at services every Sunday.”

Interfaith service for peace in Ukraine, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family in Exile, Duke Street, London W1K 5BQ, noon, Saturday 24 February


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