Skip to content

“I can’t change circumstances or situations, what I see or hear, but I can  be there for you…”, – Father Oleksandr Bohomaz

    Melitopol has been under occupation for over two years. In December 2022, the occupation regime banned the activities of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Zaporizhzhia region. Prior to the full-scale invasion and the ban, however, the Greek Catholic community in this region was growing rapidly and operating actively. Father Oleksandr Bohomaz, a UGCC priest from Melitopol who survived interrogations and was deported in December 2022, told us about the main achievements of the community over the years, its unity, and the way it managed to survive the horrors of occupation thanks to joint efforts and mutual support of believers and priests.

    Father Oleksandr, thank you for your agreement to do this interview since it is very important for us. First of all, please tell us about the life of the parish in Melitopol until February 24, 2022.

    Our parish in Melitopol was founded on December 12, 2010 by Father Peter Krenicky, a Slovak who came here from Zakarpattia. At first there were not many believers. It all started with 3 people. At that time, I was not a priest, and moreover, I was an opponent of the Greek Catholic Church in Melitopol. While studying to become a history teacher at Melitopol Pedagogical University, we used mostly soviet textbooks. The history of Ukraine was studied using textbooks by Ukrainian authors, but church and religious life issues were recommended for individual study. At that time I knew only one thing: the Uniates were something very bad, a great treason. The same thing I used to tell my students during an 8th grade classes dedicated to the Union when I worked at a school. It was in October 2010, and on January 8, 2011 I came to the Greek Catholic Church for the first time not because I was curious, but because I was provoked into that. Being an opponent of Uniatism at the time and knowing that a Greek Catholic priest was supposed to come, I wondered why he, a Slovak from Zakarpattia, was coming here and what he could show us. On Christmas Day, January 7, one of our parishioners did not attend the service in the Orthodox Church (UOC-KP), to which I was a member at the time, but attended the Greek Catholic service. She also asked me, but I didn’t go. On the evening of January 7, during the dinner, she asked me why I did not attend. My critical words were answered peacefully, almost like in the Scriptures: “Come and see”. The next morning I finally went there and stayed there. On weekdays, I went to the Greek Catholic liturgy, and on Sundays I went to the Orthodox Church for a while, but then I felt that God was leading me there. 

    The Greek Catholic parish developed quite rapidly. At first it was a house, where we destroyed all the partition walls to make one big chapel, and later all the people could not be housed there either. That is why we later implemented the second Sunday service, and then even the third one. There was also a Sunday evening service.    

    I went to the seminary, and in the 5th year I was first ordained as a deacon and at the end of the same year, on May 3, 2016, I was ordained as a priest and appointed as an assistant to Father Peter, because, in addition to Melitopol, he had four other parishes in other villages. After a while, Father Peter said that we should establish another parish in the city. About 30-40 believers from Novyi Melitopol, a remote neighborhood of the city, regularly attended our service. We bought a house in this neighborhood and built wooden church in the garden. The community grew very quickly, and there were up to 10 parishes in the villages of that region. I served in the old parish and had an assistant, Father Vladyslav Ihnatiuk. Father Peter was sent a priest from Odesa, Father Nazariy Lanko, to assist him. In Orlove village, where the first parish in our region was founded, Father Leonid Bizunov served. 

    Thus, as of February 2022, we had 5 Greek Catholic priests. There is also a Roman Catholic parish in Melitopol and in another village nearby, and we had very friendly relations with them. We had an Interfaith Council. We visited each other and could even celebrate certain holidays together. For example, before the full-scale invasion, a pastor from a Protestant church that was next door to us preached in my parish on Christmas Day.

    Could you please tell us in short about the activities in your parish?

    The activities in the parish were very diverse. Often it all started with some kind of situation-based help that developed into a great ministry. Our efforts to help the homeless actually gave rise to everything. Every day a woman came to us and asked for food, and then we managed to organize a canteen for the homeless.   We also helped single elderly people who had nobody to take care of them. At first we visited them on a regular basis, and then Father Peter founded two Houses of Mercy: one in the village of Nyzhni Sirohozy, Kherson region, and the other in the village of Lazurne, 30 km from Melitopol, with 10 beds for the elderly in each.  The same thing went with the children: at first they just came to us, and then we arranged huge camps, oases, and evangelistic events for them. We organized oases in cooperation with Mary’s School, which are quarterly holiday camps, weekend camps, or week-long camps for children and youth. As a result of these camps, seminarians are being educated: four guys went to the seminary after me. In general, there were many services, and we tried to respond to situations, and not to be indifferent. There were also the Knights of Columbus; first they were in Kyiv and then they were in Melitopol. Obviously, there was the Moms in Prayer community. Living Water Charismatic Community, a rosary community, operated on behalf of the Mary’s School. Father Peter taught us all to pray the rosary, and little by little I became a great fan of this initiative as well. There was a parish website and a Facebook page managed by one parishioner.

     Your parishes were actually extremely active in both serving and social life. Then February 24, 2022 came. Tell us, where did the war find you and what happened to the parish? 

    The war for us started with an explosion at a military airfield nearby, about 5 km from us at 5:30 AM. The night before, I watched a story on Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) and realized that there would be a war, even though I didn’t actually think so before. When I woke up in the morning and heard the explosions, I thought “Is it really happening?”… There was a lot of chaos and panic in the city, huge lines at gas stations, but in the morning many people attended the service and came on foot. I remember that very well, because then I immediately exposed the Blessed Sacrament and we had round-the-clock adoration that lasted for about a week. We made a prayer schedule. Some people left after the explosions, and those who stayed decided to come to us because they wanted to stay together. Some believers stayed in the parish house overnight. Up to 30 people spent nights in our house during the first week of the war, although this house is quite an unprotected place. I’ve told people about that, and they’ve responded: “Well, yeah, but we feel safer here in the church than we do at home”.  On February 24, at night, I saw off our Territorial Defense Forces, who had to leave the city because there were very few men and they could not stop an army of thousands. Tens of thousands of invaders passed through the city, and these guys would not have been able to do anything against them. But they took the first battle. I remember that… I remember their faces when they came out of that battle. When they left the city, I was driving home and said: “Oh, God, you are the only one who protects our city now!” There was a battle on February 25. The National Guard arrived from Zaporizhzhia, and in the evening there were aviation, bombs, rockets, and artillery. There were intense battles: everything was shooting and exploding, and the Russians made progress. On February 26, the Russians took the city, and since then it has been under the control of the occupiers.

    We kept gathering at the parish. Some families came to us. We hosted homeless people, and they lived with us. At that time, there was no electricity or signal. Despite all the difficulties, our community was very united, and we tried to help each other. Then there were rallies and prayers in the square, to be more precise, at first there were prayers that turned into rallies. Later, there were the first green corridors when people were evacuating, and we helped them in various ways. There was also a period of food crisis – at the very beginning of occupation a lot of people came to get food. We provided a lot of food and fed many people. At that time, we had up to 30 people living with us and we had to provide them with food.

    Where did you get those food products? Was it some kind of humanitarian or charitable aid?

    Before the war, we had a cooking facility for the homeless. I spent the second half of the month buying groceries. So, two days before the invasion I bought food and the pantry was well-stocked. Two weeks before the occupation, we bought a bus for the parish, and I brought about a ton of potatoes by the bus, so we had enough potatoes for a long time. Only a few homeless people came to get something to eat in the early days of the war, but later crowds of people came. I applied for help personally, but I also received many calls from various foundations offering their assistance. Obviously, we couldn’t use official accounts, so they transferred money to my personal card: I was able to withdraw cash, which we used to buy food, buy more potatoes and cereals, pack them and distribute them among people. It lasted until mid-summer. We also managed to transfer medicines and diapers through Zaporizhzhia and Vasylivka, which was important for adults. Father Vladyslav, my assistant who left on the first day, was in Zaporizhzhia and helped us a lot. Invaders often stole medicines, but the volunteers who evacuated people returned and brought humanitarian aid. At that time, the Lviv Educational Platform helped us a lot, and played a vital role. The Mennonites from Canada also helped a lot; they personally contacted me and provided assistance.

    Did you hold services in the church at that time?

    More than half of our parishioners left. But in the first month of occupation, during the liturgy on Sunday, it seemed that no one had left. There were so many people in the church. New believers came, with their families. Those were people who were desperate for support. Also, new children came to the parish. I can say that a new evangelistic life has begun in the parish.

    At the meeting of the Interfaith Council we discussed the current situation with the pastors who were still in the city (later some of them were imprisoned and captured: some have been released and left). Some of them said that the only thing we have to do now is to survive. It was the first week of occupation, and I was sitting there and talking to myself deep in my heart: “I don’t want to survive! I want to live! So I will do what I can under these circumstances, but I will not bury my head in the sand.” Therefore, there was a lot of work and spiritual conversations. Once we overcame our fear, we started driving through the checkpoints and resumed services in the parishes. Fathers Peter, Leonid and I stayed in Melitopol. Father Leonid started driving to Tokmak; it is a long way, through many checkpoints. This often resulted in problems, but he kept doing it. Each of us had four liturgies on Sunday, and usually they were in parishes that were far away from each other. Moreover, Father Peter used to be a biritualist and was familiar with the Western rite; he started to serve the Roman Catholic parish as well. We supported people as much as we could. It was a kind of spiritual boom: in the villages, people started attending church a lot, seeking the Blessed Sacrament and confession. It seems to me that even a year before the occupation, there was nothing like this. There was a great spiritual revival, but at the same time it was hard for us, especially at checkpoints, where we were often humiliated and harassed. You had to withstand everything the invaders told you and still keep going. Sometimes I came to the service and was emotionally devastated; I stood in front of people, and people expected me to encourage them. Once I said to the people before the service: “You are waiting for me to encourage you, but today I ask you to encourage me; pray for me too”. The authority of the priest under those circumstances was overwhelming; it was much greater than that of the head of the village council. We felt that we were moral and spiritual authorities for people, and we were expected to be there for them. People wanted us to be with them. We often visited people and families who stayed in the area. They invited us to dinners: there were a lot of social conversations, common prayers, and a lot of confessions.

    How safe was it for you as a priest to wear a cassock? Were you forced to wear casual clothes to avoid unwanted attention?

    Both Father Peter and I wore cassocks all the time. The cassock seemed to have been glued to my body. At checkpoints, I also always was in a cassock, so they always asked me, “What patriarchate?” It is clear that they hated the Kyiv Patriarchate, always calling them schismatics. Russian propaganda worked very well. Even Muslims knew that the Kyiv Patriarchate supposedly was schismatics.  

    They also all knew the word “Uniate” and it was a trigger for them. So I always just answered: “I am a Catholic and I do not play patriarchates. I am just a Catholic.” Once they asked me if there were many Catholics in Ukraine. I counted the number of Roman and Greek Catholics together and answered that there were about 6 million. They were shocked. In fact, I had mostly very unpleasant conversations with them.

    Did you speak Ukrainian? What about checkpoints? What language did you use for services?

    It was natural for me to speak Ukrainian. We also held services in Ukrainian. Both Father Peter and Father Leonid spoke Ukrainian. It was a matter of principle. I switched to bastard Russian only with Dagestanis, Kadyrovites, or other non-Russians at checkpoints, because I realized that they did not understand any other language. When they “deported” me, during the last interrogation I was forced to speak Russian. I spoke Russian every other word on purpose.

    Could you please tell us more about the activities of the Interfaith Council? Who were the members of this council?

    The Interfaith Council consisted of Greek and Roman Catholics, Protestants (the majority), the UOC-MP, and the OCU. (Although Melitopol is considered to be an Orthodox city, Protestant believers constitute the majority there). We were very friendly and had many shared projects. We even made a joint Way of the Cross. I don’t even know if something like that has ever been organized anywhere else in Ukraine. I mean Protestants, Greek Catholics, and Roman Catholics together.

    Who was the initiator of this Interfaith Council? Did the local authorities or the churches themselves form the council? This is actually very interesting.

    Local authorities initiated this idea back in 2007 or 2008. One Orthodox priest from the Moscow Patriarchate was very enthusiastic about this, but unfortunately, I don’t know where he is now. When I became a priest, I heard that he was very friendly person. Later, it grew into our mutual desire to cooperate, and then even into friendship; we keep in touch even now.

    Did you evacuate people during the war, along with humanitarian aid?

    A lot of people personally asked me for evacuation, but I only helped with the search for carriers. We always had someone living in the parish and waiting for the opportunity to leave. It could last a week or two. We used to organize a lot of such missions; I can’t even count how many people we often had to find money for, because it was rather expensive… In many cases, it was large families, our parishioners, or just strangers who asked for help. As for me, I did not transport people because I was afraid that if I left, I would not be able to return; I could not be allowed to enter as a priest of the Greek Catholic Church, because they had all the information in their databases.

    Did the community remain united according to their views towards the situation, or did it split?  

    You know, there were a few exceptions, and there were also those who just sold out to get money.  When pensions were paid in the amount of 10 thousand rubles (which is equivalent to 5 thousand hryvnias), and previously they were 2.5 thousand hryvnias, for some people it was like a return to the Soviet era, i.e. a feeling of youth or nostalgia. For example, in the village where I came from, there is a huge nursery school, which was run by a woman who received a large salary in her new position – 30-40 thousand rubles.  I watched people change their minds because of money. Unfortunately, some of my friends and classmates were among those who became collaborators. However, I am sure that this is not any ideological beliefs, it happened purely because of money. 

    Did religious buildings remain undamaged during the war and occupation or were they destroyed? 

    The church building in Tokmak was damaged, I think it was the dome, but I don’t know the details. The window was also smashed, but the parishioners fixed it on their own. You probably know about the document that says that all property, both real and personal, shall be transferred to the administration (what is meant here is that the occupation authorities of Zaporizhzhia region have banned the activities of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church on their territory – editor’s note). For example, we used to transport hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid with the bus we bought a few weeks before the war. It was very useful, but we could not take it back. Also, they said that about two weeks ago, a truck was parked near our church and something was loaded into it. It is clear that almost everything there was plundered. People saved what they could. For example, I know that people used to hide icons, vestments, and cups, but household items and equipment were stolen from the church. 

    Earlier, when I was a seminarian, we started working with the homeless. It was a complex process: we sent them for rehabilitation, then tried to find them a place to work and live. We were thinking of launching a social enterprise in Melitopol for such people who have undergone rehabilitation after suffering from alcohol and drug addiction. We were awarded grants for that project and purchased machines: we were supposed to produce gutters and roof drainage systems. We were about to launch that enterprise in March 2022. In general, I was very concerned about this integration and supported it; it is a kind of palliative care not for the terminally ill patients, but for the homeless. It’s a certain state of life, even though they don’t want to change anything. However, we can’t abandon them to their fate when it’s freezing outside, so that they freeze and die. I have always fought for them. That is why it is so emblematic now that the house where I lived in Melitopol is full of homeless people. The priests’ houses were taken away. For example, the invaders are now living in the house of my assistant, Father Vladyslav, and the same is happening in Snihurivka near Tokmak, in Orlove.

    Could you please tell us a little bit about Father Peter’s fate and what happened to you later?

    Only three Greek Catholic priests stayed there during occupation. Father Peter was deported on November 25, 2022, and I was deported on December 1, 2022. We served a service together with Father Leonid from Orlove in the morning and also set up a schedule for our 13 parishes. I told them that I didn’t want to hide anywhere: either I was leaving or I was serving. We discussed this with both the bishops and His Beatitude. I told them that I had decided to stay. After Father Peter was deported, it was just two of us. Father Leonid has a wife and a little child. I told him that for security reasons it was better for them to leave as a family. But he talked to his wife, and they decided to stay. On Thursday after Matins, we made a schedule to visit all of our parishes so that at least once a week there would be a Divine Liturgy in each of them. After that, we went to breakfast and at that time the invaders broke down the door and entered our yard and house. I was arrested and interrogated.  Father Leonid was also arrested. As for me, there was a specific decision to deport me; he was offered to either join the Moscow Patriarchate and stay or leave. He decided to leave. So he and his wife left on December 8. It was one of the last cars to leave Melitopol through Vasylivka. Later, a car with people was coming through and was fired upon, so this crossing was closed after that.

    Nevertheless, there are still people, and the community. Maybe you know if people watch services online on Zhyve TV, and join religious life at least in this way…  

    People pray together, gather to pray the rosary; we also meet together online at 8 PM and pray together. People gathered secretly and even switched to a new calendar. It was important to them. I can say for sure that no one wished me Merry Christmas on January 7, which means that all the greetings were on December 24-25. Our people have become even more united. Even then, during occupation, every Sunday liturgy was like an Easter Sunday service. I will always remember that. But now I don’t have that feeling here. We had such emotions there every Sunday. You know, I was in a different mood then, too. More than once I even cried, thinking: “Oh, God, what am I doing here, why am I here?” There were many unpleasant situations, but there were also many nice moments. 

    Our online meetings are joined by believers who are still under occupation, as well as by those who have left. It is quite an integrative moment. It happens that I am busy all day because I have, for example, three services in different places, and then people gather and pray on their own. They are such a great people. It makes me very happy.

    Could you please comment on the ban of the UGCC, Caritas and the Knights of Columbus in the occupied Zaporizhzhia region? 

    Everyone knew that the Greek Catholic Church in the occupied part of Zaporizhzhia region was actively operating in Melitopol and in the villages. There were also Redemptorists in Berdiansk  (Fr. Ivan Levytsky, Fr. Bohdan Heleta) who have been in captivity for over a year. They also worked hard, but there were fewer of them. We were active, did not hide, and always tried to respond to people’s specific needs. 

    It is a great miracle that we are alive and not in prison. I have no answer to the question why we are not in prison, not with Fathers from Berdiansk. But thank God we are alive and free.

    So, where are you staying now, what kind of activities are you involved in?

    Currently, I am in Zaporizhzhia, at the parish of Archangel Michael at St. Volodymyr’s Church; I also serve every Sunday with the Basilian Sisters in their monastery.  I and one other priest go to stabilization centers, where the wounded are placed, and there we serve mostly for doctors, because the wounded do not stay there for long. We often go to the military on holidays, have many conversations with them, and have confessions. I saw and felt a lot of pain there. I saw one side of the coin under occupation: it was the suffering of people living in a concentration camp, because those territories are a huge concentration camp, where even the word “Ukraine” can lead to a basement. After the deportation, I went to my grandmother, who lives in Chernivtsi region, and there I saw a funeral procession; then my close friends died. I also saw the other side of the war. Then I started going to the military and spending nights there. I saw a lot of misery and evil that the war caused. I want to be close to the military, I want to be there for them, so I am happy to go everywhere, to respond to all requests. I am not an official military chaplain, but as a volunteer I spend a lot of time with the military and families of the fallen.

    And finally, I would like to share one more thing: both under the circumstances of occupation and now, I and Fathers Peter and Leonid (we discussed that) believe that our main role is to be a carrier for God, a carrier for Jesus, like donkeys, to bring God closer to people through the holy mysteries. This is how we see our ministry under such circumstances: whether there or here, the role is the same, but with different locations and different conditions. The role is the same. I can’t take any credit. It is a great honor for me to do that. When my loved ones died, I was completely broken and shared my pain with the priest during confession, complained, cried, and he told me: “Your mission is to be like Mary under the Cross, just to stand side by side with people.”  I pray to the Mother of God to give me wisdom and strength so that I can stand under the Cross in the same way. This is the only role I see myself playing, and I can’t do anything else. I can’t change circumstances or situations, the things I see or hear, but I can stand side by side with people… 

    I would like to thank you for your frank and heart-to-heart talk!

    The interviewer: Iryna Fenno

    The conversation was recorded on February 1, 2024

    The interview was a part of the project “Religion on Fire: Documenting Russia’s War Crimes against Religious Communities in Ukraine”, implemented by the NGO “Workshop of Academic Religious Studies” with the support of “Documenting Ukraine”, a project of the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna.