Balkan Orthodox believers tormented by ‘godless’ war in Ukraine

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Bucharest (AFP) – Romanian Orthodox priest Georgian Paunoiu is tormented by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how followers of the same religion have been drawn into such a bloody conflict.

He is not alone in his need.

In both Romania and neighboring Bulgaria, religious leaders from both countries’ churches have expressed their sympathy for Ukraine and condemned the invasion of one Orthodox country by another.

Paunoiu rolls up the sleeves of his cassock and offers “prayers but above all good deeds” to bring “a spark of comfort and hope” to Ukrainians.

“The images of young children fleeing tired and hungry holding their mothers’ hands are just heartbreaking,” Paunoiu, 45 – himself a father of three – told AFP.

“Our Hearts Tremble”

In the vicarage of St. Ecaterina Church in Bucharest, where Pauniou officiates, refugee aid is piled up in the bathroom: blankets, food, medicine and even a wheelchair.

A first church convoy bringing relief supplies to the Ukrainian border left on Wednesday to help some of the tens of thousands of refugees entering Romania every day.

“Our hearts tremble,” says Paunoiu, who says he was applauded by his herd’s generosity.

Aurelian Reit, pastor of St. Trinity Parish in downtown Brasov, responded in a similar way when he called for donations.

Orthodox Christian priest Georgian Paunoiu is distressed at how fellow believers are embroiled in a bloody conflict in Ukraine Mihai Barbu AFP

There was an “unexpected flood” of believers bringing mattresses, comforters, tents and toiletries.

“We filled 132 boxes, some are already on their way,” Reit told the AFP news agency.

“As long as the war continues, this outpouring of solidarity will continue,” he says, adding that 63 Ukrainian children have been welcomed into his church’s community center.

“Human Antichrist”

In Bulgaria, Patriarch Neophyte has urged the faithful to “pray for an immediate end to the war.”

“Let us open our hearts to our suffering brothers and let us help them!” he said at a prayer at the beginning of Lent and, despite the perceived closeness of his church to Russia, openly sided with Ukraine.

In a March 3 address, Metropolitan Nikolay of Plovdiv openly criticized the “war that has pitted Orthodox Christians against one another.”

“Russia attacked Ukraine. It’s so godless!” he thundered.

“This is not a war for our faith, but a war fueled by pride and one that hurts the Orthodox Church.”

Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees are housed in Bulgaria’s monasteries.

Romanian Patriarch Daniel similarly expressed his “serious concern” at the invasion “of Russia against a sovereign, independent state.”

Spokesman for the Office of the Patriarch, Vasile Banescu, went further and denounced the “cynical complicity of the opulent patriarch” Kirill, head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, with a “murderous” government.

He condemned “the human Antichrist who professes to believe in God and in patriotism,” in a thinly veiled reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kirill has described Moscow’s opponents in Ukraine as “evil forces” bent on severing historic ties between the two countries.

Tens of thousands of refugees from Ukraine cross Romania every day
Tens of thousands of refugees from Ukraine cross Romania every day MIHAI BARBU AFP

But in the small room where he sorts donations for the refugees, Paunoiu rejects the notion that true Christians could have started this war.

He uses a particularly apt quote from Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

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