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An uneasy Great Lent for Russian, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians in Southern California – Press Telegram

Rev. Vasile Sauciur rarely holds long masses at Saint Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Echo Park.

But Sunday was different.

The church’s parking lot was packed. Inside the temple adorned with shining golden domes, parishioners jammed the pews. Some kneeled between the rows in prayer.

During the three-hour service, Father Sauciur stood in a blue and yellow robe, the colors of the flag of Ukraine.

He spoke of “a great crisis.”

Father Vasile Sauciur holds a mass at Saint Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 26. (Photo by OlgaGrigoryants, Los Angeles Daily News)

“Our story is the one of David and Goliath,” he said. “ And I think we are David. We don’t have much but we have the right heart, the right attitude, the right purpose and motivation. We have what it takes to be victorious.”

Monday, March 7, will mark the beginning of Great Lent followed by Easter, or Pascha. These are the holiest days on the liturgical calendar celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church.

This year, those sacred dates begin during the second week of a devastating war that has battered and bloodied Ukraine.

More than a week into Russia’s invasion, its mammoth armored column zeroed in on the capital city of Kyiv. President Vladimir Putin’s military has launched hundreds of missiles and artillery attacks on cities and other sites across the country and made significant gains on the ground in the south in an apparent bid to cut off Ukraine’s access to the sea.

An attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in the southeastern city of Enerhodar triggered global alarm and fear of a catastrophe that could dwarf the world’s worst nuclear accident, at Ukraine’s Chernobyl in 1986.

The Kremlin has rationalized the assault as defensive, with its state-controlled media telling Russians that the nation had been forced into a confrontation with Ukrainian leadership under the thumb of Western influences. On Friday, the Russian military issued a statement blaming the attack on the nuclear plant on Ukrainian “provocation.”

Ukraine’s leaders frantically reached out to the world for help in the weeks before the invasion and their calls have intensified as Russian troops flooded major cities.

Amid the turmoil, Pascha beckons. As both Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches enter the Great Fast, the faithful watch. And worry. And pray.

Father Sauciur was among many other Eastern Orthodox priests and parishioners in Southern California trying to make sense of the bloodshed happening half a world away in Kyiv, the birthplace of the two churches.

Great Lent is the time of reflection and prayer, Father Sauciur said. But amid the relentless Russian invasion, all Ukrainians could think of was the country’s fight for freedom.

“When we’re supposed to talk about fasting and sacrificing,” he said, “(the Russians) want to sacrifice you.”

Both the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches trace their faith back to the 10th century. Prince Vladimir, the pagan ruler of Kievan Rus’ — the area encircling parts of modern countries of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine — decided to unite the people under one religion.

After opting out from Islam and Judaism — largely because of their dietary restrictions — Vladimir found himself mesmerized by stories of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and its beauty.

The distinctive structure — built as a Christian church by Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, it was subsequently transformed into a mosque, a museum and back into a mosque as the centuries advanced — was regarded as the center of faith and art in the region, but also the focal point for art and politics. During The Baptism of Rus in 988, regarded as the key moment in the introduction of Christianity to eastern Slavs, the citizens of Kyiv were converted to Christianity en masse, at the direction of Justinian.

Father Vasile Sauciur, left, and subdeacon David De Jesus, center, hold a service for Ukraine at the Saint Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Los Angeles Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. In Los Angeles, where Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and others live, pray, eat and shop together, there’s a range of emotions about the invasion of Ukraine. But most palpable is a feeling of solidarity with the Ukrainians under attack by Russian forces. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches evolved separately, but they still share the same faith, dogma and holy sites. Slavic, Russian or Ukrainian endure as the languages for holy services.

Yet these are two people deeply entrenched in a brutal war. According to the Washington Post, the United Nations recorded 752 civilian casualties in Ukraine as of Friday, including 227 killed and 525 injured. That includes scores of children.

The outlook is grim.

Still, amid these worst of times, the Russians and Ukrainians have much in common. Robert English, director of the USC School of International Relations, said Ukraine and Russia maintain historic, linguistic, cultural and economic ties.

“And even to this day, even in the midst of the conflict, those family ties, those linguistic and cultural ties are strong,” he said. “Leaders in both countries seek to nationalize their people, to emphasize Russia nationalism, to emphasize Ukrainian nationalism, to emphasize their separateness. But they can’t erase overnight what was built up over centuries.”

Orthodox Christians, meanwhile, look to their traditions for clarity, for faith and for strength.

Helena Menshikova arrived for such a service last Sunday in Echo Park, along with scores of others. She stood with her two children outside the church, trying to make sense of how a Christian country — often referred to as a brother — can attack her homeland.

Her family moved from Ukraine just three weeks ago after hearing reports of the Kremlin’s looming invasion.

She stayed in Santa Monica but her heart was still in Kyiv, where her oldest daughter, mother and granddaughter were hiding in a bomb shelter amid intense shelling by Russian forces.

Menshikova said she headed to California when her country was still peaceful and she couldn’t believe how quickly the assault has overtaken her homeland.

“Here under the California sun, you can go to the rallies and talk about freedom, but everyone needs to think about how they can help Ukraine,” she said. “We have to fight for the freedom, for the freedom of our thoughts, for the freedom of our children.”

Ahead of the Great Lent, she said she prayed for people around the world to experience “peace, kindness and love, everything that Ukraine represents today.”

Victor Chaban joined a service at Saint Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 27. (Photo by Olga Grigoryants, Los Angeles Daily News)

Another visitor, Victor Chaban, said he joined the service to connect with fellow Ukrainians after tossing and turning through several sleepless nights.

Chaban just learned that back in Kyiv, his 60-year-old brother had enlisted in the territorial defense unit.

That and other news from Ukraine took their toll.

“People feel very strongly about fighting and defending their country,” he said. “The world is upside down right now.”

‘GOD IS WITH US’

Great Lent is much like the season embraced by mainstream Christians.

It lasts for 40 days, but unlike the West, Sundays are included in the count. The period officially begins on the Monday that falls seven weeks before Pascha and ends on the eve of Lazarus Saturday, traditionally the day before Palm Sunday.

Fasting, however, continues for an additional week — known as Passion Week or Great Week — up until what they Pascha, or Easter, the annual celebration of the resurrection of their savior, Jesus Christ Eastern Christians look inward.

They confess their sins and subsequently repent. The fast and abstain from certain foods, including meat and dairy products.

They pray aloud — and in private. They choose the words of their prayers precisely. It is a time of deep self-examination. The faith aims to be ready to welcome their savior.

Father Nazari Polataiko conducts a service at the Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Silver Lake March 1, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Rev. Nazari Polataiko says his prayers this year have focused on peace. They started long before Great Lent when it became clear at Putin’s forces were about to invade.

At Polataiko’s Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles, the flock includes Americans, Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians and other Orthodox Christians.

Polataiko was born in the town of Chernivtsi in Southwestern Ukraine. His parents are still there.

Now in their 80s, they’ve spent their nights in the basement, falling asleep in their sleeping bags to the sound of air-raid sirens.

“They still remember World War II,” he said, “although they were kids during the German occupation,”

Russia and Ukraine share strong religions and historic ties, he said. This war is just about politics, he added.

People kneel as Father Nazari Polataiko conducts a service at the Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Silver Lake March 1, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

“The main gift from God to us is freedom,” he said. “Democracy is a Christian virtue because it protects the freedom of choice.”

If someone forces another side to install an idea, he said “it’s the sin of Cain because it’s done with mercantile interests. That’s how fratricide and war start.”

Polataiko became the priest at Holy Virgin Mary church in 2014 — following the Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. It’s a conflict that emotionally split the expats in the Russian-Ukrainian diaspora.

To deal with the division, Rev. Polataiko had a strategy.

He banned his parish from discussing politics.

“Part of the freedom that I appreciate living in the U.S. is that there are different sources of information,” he said. Sooner or later, he said, “the truth will win and we all will understand who is right and who is wrong.”

Avoid politics today? Not possible, he said. But he urged his parish to maintain hope.

The result of WWII, Polataiko added, was that “Fascism was defeated. I’m sure the same will happen now.”

He will share that enduring faith with his flock.

Father Nazari Polataiko at the Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Silver Lake March 1, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Across the city, at Saint Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the lengthy service was concluding.

An uneasy Great Lent for Russian, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians in Southern California – Press Telegram Source link An uneasy Great Lent for Russian, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians in Southern California – Press Telegram

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