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“Invaders hoped that the Church would happily embrace them but their expectations didn’t come true”, – Father Dmytro Dziadevych

    The russian invasion has led to changes in religious life not only for Ukrainian citizensin Ukraine, but also for those Ukrainians who have taken refuge in other countries. It is worthy of note that among priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church there are those who have come through the occupation and hostilities themselves. Such clergymen can fully understand problems and traumas that believers have. One of these priests is Father Dmytro Dziadevych, an archpriest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, rector of the parish of St. Michael the Archangel in Berlin, and before the invasion he was the rector of the Church of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste of Kherson Diocese of the UOC.

    Can you please tell us what the life of your religious community was like before February 24, 2022? How many people did it have approximately?

    The Church of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste was built on the official territory of Kherson Patrol Police Department. Originally, it was planned that the church would be exclusively for police use, but later, apparently due to the inexpediency of closing it, it was opened to all comers. The territory of the Church was designed in such a way that, although it is located on the police territory, it was a separate building with its own territory. Therefore, the parishioners of this Church were ordinary people from the nearby Tavriyskyi residential area. The community was not large, but since the Church itself was small, it was always full of people. People called this Church a chapel. The church was truly small, but it was a real Church with an altar where services were held every Sunday and every holiday. There were always 35-40 people attending services, although the community was actually larger. Our Church patronized two rehabilitation centers of the International Anti-Drug Association, and people who completed a course at the rehabilitation center and were at the stage of social rehabilitation, that is, learned to live socially again, were obliged to attend the Church every Sunday for the Liturgy. This is what we call our special feature. No one else in Kherson was engaged in such an activity. We also visited orphanages to help with the collection of clothing items. As a result, we made four “good boxes” – containers for collecting clothes – which were placed in crowded locations, including shopping malls, and guys from the rehabilitation centers helped in collecting these items and delivering them. That’s how we did it.

    How did you and your community handle February 24?

    For me personally and for our community, February 24 was a hard day. Like most Ukrainians, I was awakened by a call saying “war has started.” At that time, I lived on the Church territory with my family, and windows of our house faced Chornobaivka. At 4 a.m. I noticed smoke coming from Chornobaivka and realized it was for real. From the very first days, we stayed together which is an advantage of a small community, as people communicate closely with each other. We realized that the city might face a food shortage, as the entrepreneurs who sold food closed their shops, realizing that goods would be sold out.  That’s why it became an important mission for us to arrange for the possibility of buying products. We purchased food and provided it for free. Every day we distributed these food packages, realizing that the number of people in need was growing and our capabilities were limited. So we asked for help from the local fire station on Vyshneva Street, who shared their field kitchen with us to prepare hot meals for everyone. I’m proud of my community for the way everyone got involved in that process: women cooked, served food, and washed dishes. The start of the war was terrifying, but on the other hand, I am glad that we went through those trials worthily.

    You faced occupation on the very first day. Has your community mostly stayed or left?

    Our community was occupied on the very first day. In general, during the first few months in Kherson, there was an atmosphere of enthusiasm, everyone was united. We witnessed our Kherson rallies, where we stopped the columns with our hands, and tens of thousands of people took to the streets with slogans like “We don’t want to see you here. Kherson is Ukraine. Go back home”. No one planned to leave, believing that everything would be over soon. Therefore, I cannot say that many parishioners left at the beginning. When everyone realized that the russian authorities would do everything to make Kherson completely russian, people started leaving. I had some events in my life that changed it dramatically.

    Can you please tell us if you were approached by the parishioners during the first days, during the first hours, because if this is a real parish and a pastor, then you know, there were such needs? Maybe your parishioners have asked you what to do?

    During the first days, during the first hours, the parishioners approached us, because, in fact, if this is a real parish and a pastor, it is clear that there is a need for such communication. We had no place where people could stay, although there was a large Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross nearby, where people were sheltered in the lower church as in a bomb shelter. Our parishioners became very close to each other and spent time together; they volunteered, went shopping, distributed food, and planned for the future.

    Not only are you a priest of a Church that the occupiers themselves may have considered their own, but your Church was on the territory of the police. I mean, you were in the eye of the storm.  And challenging events must have taken place there. How did these two factors affect the attitude of the occupiers towards you and the community?

    Due to the fact that the Church is located on the police territory, my family and I were very afraid of shelling and grave events, which almost happened when the russians started “mopping up”. They walked through the streets, inspecting the territory, including the police, so our Church was in the zone of their attention. When my family and I stayed there, we did not understand what to do. Later, I decided to ask the occupiers to allow us to leave, and after a dispute, they agreed. That was the last day I lived at the Church. Our friends welcomed us. The occupiers hoped that the Church would welcome them with open arms, but their expectations were not met. My participation in the rally led to the spreading of photos on the Internet, and “visits” to all the priests who participated in the rallies started. Communication with me was more difficult. I was at a prayer service in front of the icon of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, and after the acathistus, when we were making hot meals, military vehicles arrived and offered me to go with them. I got in the car, they put a mask on me, but I know Kherson well, so it was useless. We arrived at the territory of the Regional Patrol Police Department on Suvorova Street, where they had provisional headquarters, and started to talk to me. The occupiers became interested in me because I am a master of sports in boxing and had many contacts with military men. I made it clear that I did not want to cooperate with them or distribute russian humanitarian aid. After all, it was because of this focus on me that I became the first person from our parish to leave Kherson.

    Did you explain anything to the believers, or did they understand why you decided to leave?

    As of April 2022, there were not very many parishioners left in the Church, although there was a priest who, based on my recommendation, was ordained and served as a second priest. Then he took the monastic vows with the name Abraham. Services were held, but there were fewer and fewer people, just like in Kherson in general. The Ukrainian troops did not shell Kherson, unlike the russian troops, who are now shelling the city every day.

    How is your Kherson community living now?

    Now our church no longer belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as it is located near the police, now it belongs to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Since it was a service Church and documents relating to the building and the territory of the Church were kept by the police, they were able to change the affiliation of the Church. Now there are no services there because there is no priest, and it is clear that there are no people there either.

    Where do the remaining parishioners go then?

    Hieromonk Abraham now serves in another Church in Tavriyskyi neighborhood. The parishioners went to different churches, but even before our Church was transferred to the OCU, no more than 10 people attended services.

    That is, about 25 percent. That’s interesting. Do you know any stories of anyone from your community joining the OCU?


    Please tell me, have you ever seen the russian occupiers enter a church, ask for a blessing, or take communion?

    There were several funny stories about the russian occupiers’ attendance at the Church and requests for blessings or communion. The occupiers came uniformed, but they could not enter the Church with weapons. Once, the occupier wanted to light a candle, but the candle-seller pointed out that it was impossible to enter with a gun and offered to give her the gun, so he gave up the idea.

    So you and your family moved to Berlin. You stay there as an Orthodox priest, and Berlin is not the canonical territory of any Orthodox church. So how did the process of community development go?

    At first I went to serve in Szczecin. I saw that I would not constantly go to serve in Poland, of course, I would go every Sunday and, if possible, on major holidays. There were no problems with that. I clearly decided that I would not go to the russian Orthodox Church. The reason is that those blessings of the war and the mention of the Patriarch were and still are unacceptable to me. Later, I was contacted by Father Mykola Danilevych, deputy head of the UOC Department for External Church Relations, with an offer to help me organize a UOC parish in Berlin. It was the summer of 2022. One of our parishioners, who had lived in Germany for a long time, and I decided that he would write letters to various churches – Protestant and Catholic – and ask about the possibility of serving. There was only a great desire to serve and blessing of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufriy. However, if it is God’s will, then everything happens as it should, and we found the church. The first church that has now become the place of service for the All Saints parish is the Christkönig Catholic Church, where we were allowed to hold services on Sundays.

    We serve there every Sunday and every holiday. Later, thanks to the reputation we already had and the need of the believers, we had the opportunity to serve in the Michael Kirche in the center of Berlin, which is a historic church with a tragic history that was half destroyed. The Catholic community decided not to rebuild the entire church, but to rebuild only the remaining part; they decided to wall off the ruins. The first service was held in 2024 on Christmas Day, January 7, and was attended by about 500 people. The Church was full of people. It was so large-scale and so strong that even today some German media write about it. Every Sunday in both parishes we have about 150 people attending liturgies.

    There is also a Ukrainian parish of the Constantinople Patriarchate in Berlin. Do you have any contact with them?

    We have no contact with them, because everyone deals with their own affairs in their parish.

    Have you ever counted how many of your new parishioners are Ukrainians who have lived in Germany for a long time and how many are those who moved because of the war?

    It’s hard to answer about Berlin. Probably more of those who have been living here for a long time. Many people from Bukovyna have been working in Germany for a long time. Therefore, I can use the example of my parish to say that approximately 60 percent are refugees and 40 percent are people who lived in Berlin before the invasion.

    Do you notice any political bias among your parishioners? Do they want to talk to you about political issues, about the war, for example? How do they overcome traumatic experiences with the help of the church?

    This is definitely a traumatic experience. We are definitely all sick with war and will live with this for the rest of our lives. Perhaps we feel changes in ourselves, and if at the beginning it was very important for me to give myself an assessment, reviews and reflections regarding the war, now I try to avoid it, because it is very difficult issue for us. I definitely don’t say anything about the war when I’m standing in the pulpit. We try not to raise this issue so as not to irritate the parishioners, but we always pray for peace and victory for Ukraine at every service.

    Do you plan to return to your parish in Kherson after the war or do you want to stay in Berlin?

    As of now, I plan to keep developing the Orthodox Church in Berlin, but it is hard to say what will happen in the future. We live for the moment.

    How does your Berlin parish manage the volunteer work that you did in Kherson?

    We bought one car for the Armed Forces of Ukraine with the help of our parish.  Also, after the dam was blown up, when Kherson churches were damaged, we raised money for the Church of the Kasperivska Icon of the Mother of God, which is located in Ostriv neighborhood and was flooded almost completely to the domes. Our current volunteer activity is organized only within the parish.

    Thank you, Father, for a very interesting conversation.

    The interviewer: Karen Nikiforov

    The conversation was recorded on February 10, 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.