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“People yearn for all Ukrainian, they want to be part of the Ukrainian church”, –  Bishop Borys (Kharko), OCU

    Tavriya Diocese of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine covers the parishes of Kherson and Mykolaiv regions. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, these regions have been in the eye of the storm. In particular, the left bank area of Kherson region is still annexed, and the territories liberated in November 2022 are under daily shelling. Bishop Borys (Kharko) of the OCU, Diocesan of Kherson and Khakhiv, military chaplain of the Armed Forces of Ukraine tell us about the service in wartime and its impact on the daily affairs of the diocese, adapted forms of religious activity, and the development of chaplaincy in Ukraine.     

    First of all, I would like to thank you for having this interview! Bishop Borys, could you please describe where the full-scale war found you?

    When my ministry in Kherson began, the war had already started (the outbreak of hostilities on the territory of Ukraine in 2014 – editor’s note), and we occasionally, two or three times a year, went on humanitarian missions to the frontline areas, either to Mariupol or Avdiivka. We used to travel as chaplains on a voluntary basis, that is, we delivered some aid and at the same time, if necessary, heard confessions and gave communion to the soldiers. It was in 2022 that our diocese published the annual “Tavriisky Indiction”(Tavrian Indiction). That was the Indiction where the prayer services from Petro Mohyla’s Trebnyk were placed. There are two major prayer services: “Prayer in Time of War” and “Prayer for victory in the time of invasion of barbarians and strangers”. Since January 2022, we have been holding this prayer service every morning at 8:00 in the diocesan chapel. A few of our parishioners attended that service, but it was held every morning in January and February, no matter how many people were attending. I mean, we and our believers had a slightly different understanding of the possibility of a full-scale war, despite the reports of the Ukrainian authorities, and all those pompous events on February 16, the Day of Unity. However, there was a thing that on February 20, on the Day of Remembrance of the Heavenly Hundred, I led a prayer for Ukraine and for victory both in Kherson and Mykolaiv, and there were no bishops of other dioceses at that time, although priests of different denominations attended, because it was an ecumenical prayer service.

    And on February 24, a full-scale war broke out. Father Mykola, a priest from Nova Kakhovka, called me in the morning and said: “Bishop, come and pray, because the war has started.” It was after 5 AM. I woke up, checked the Internet to see that Putin’s statement had already been posted before 5 AM, and started preparing for the liturgy. Around half past six, I heard two incoming missile strikes and an hour later another one. Later it turned out that it was at the airport in Chornobaivka. And at 8:00 we did not hold a prayer service, but a liturgy. Around 10 AM, priests from Kakhovka and Nova Kakhovka came to me. I made a general instruction for the priests: anyone who wants to leave should leave and save lives. We had no problem with such things, and I supported them. As for me personally, I found crucial the attitude of our neighbor, a Roman Catholic priest, who came to me in the morning of February 24 and said: “Bishop, you should realize that you are the first. Who prayed for Ukraine on February 20 in Kherson? Bishop Borys! And why there were no others? Who prayed in Mykolaiv? Bishop Borys. And why were there no others who call themselves Ukrainian?” He made it clear to me that it was better to leave and come back later. I packed some church documents for the priest from Kakhovka to take them away. Then I packed the rest of the documents so as not to miss any important information and hit the road. I also took a priest from the neighboring diocese, from Antonivka, where Russian troops were already on the bridge, and the situation was already dangerous. But the public attitude was a bit strange. We made a stop at a gas station in Chornobaivka and met another priest from Kherson diocese. Also within that period, a priest from my diocese arrived from Skadovsk. He told me that he had already driven over the corpses, crossing the Antonivka Bridge at his own peril. We had already realized how serious the situation was. However, the employees at the gas stations were very patriotically minded, they believed that this bridge would be blown up and the occupiers would not be allowed to cross the river, they were cheerful, acting just like a normal working day, offering coffee. There were huge traffic jams, and it took us more than a day to get to the West of Ukraine. 

    You’ve come back home, am I right?

    Yes, you are right, in Lviv region. However, on March 1, I packed humanitarian aid and food, we made some varenyky, and we decided to go to Mykolaiv, which seemed to be accessible. We didn’t know how easy it was to get to, so we decided to go through Odesa. On our way, we were told that the bridge was probably blown up, and we actually delivered the humanitarian aid to Odesa. Since the bridge was not yet completely destroyed, the next day we reached Koblevo, and we succeeded in evacuating our priest’s wife, daughter, and granddaughter from Mykolaiv. Next time we knew that the bridge was passable, so we went through Odesa to Mykolaiv.

    At that time, there was still a signal, and we still had a priest and his wife in Lazurne, a priest in the right bank area in Mykhailivka, two priests on the Kinburn Spit, a deacon in a village near Oleshky and in Kalanchak. I offered Father Stepan from Kalanchak to evacuate, and he told me: “I am not getting into any mess, I serve people”. Although, I told everyone that our church’s position is quite simple: people come first, that is, we have to take care of human life, and the other things – property, even churches – that’ll come with time, because when you are attacked, you cannot save anything. Some priests stayed in their parishes, while others left later, like the priests from near Skadovsk and from Chornobaivka who left in April. The deacon took his family out of Oleshky and returned home. We ordained him in Mykolaiv on Palm Sunday, and he decided that he could help there, but last year he left permanently. 

    Was it difficult for you to leave your priests and believers for a long time?

    Yeah, on March 1, we headed to Odesa region with humanitarian aid. Most weekdays we were in the West collecting aid, and on weekends we brought provisions and served in Mykolaiv. We have two parishes there, Panteleimonivska and Petro-Pavlivska, and I served both. There is a Balabanivka neighborhood located south of Mykolaiv, and the priest took his family out of there and stayed there. Most of the shelling happened there. To get to it, you had to go through at least seven checkpoints. We went to serve there to support him. We found a way to shorten the service for safety reasons. I remember once we came there to hold a service, and people told us that in the morning there had been an incoming missile strike on the neighboring village of Halytsynove, and the church of the Moscow Patriarchate was destroyed. And the priest said: “Well, they’ll probably come to us instead.” In fact, we were wrong in our forecasts. Their church was shelled, and they are still part of the Moscow Patriarchate. It was such a shock for us. By the way, the Roman Catholic priest I mentioned earlier also moved to Mykolaiv and served a church in Mykolaiv because the others left. We visited him at his Easter. It was quite an interesting experience of celebrating the holiday services under constant shelling and bombardment.  

    Are there very few OCU churches in Kherson and Mykolaiv?

    Yeah, not many, the Moscow Patriarchate has much more.

    In the context of the war, were there any cases when people consciously moved from one denomination to another?

    The first case happened in April 2022. The community of Ozerne village, near Voznesensk, joined the OCU. You may remember that there was a story about it; it was widely covered by the media, when people in the village captured an infantry fighting vehicle with Russian soldiers, and there were documents related to the war dating back to 2018. That village was Ozerne. That was the first story, and the second was about a local priest. We used to turn off the lights at night to provide masking and demasking. Here’s what caused that “move”. Not everyone knew where the light switches for the village were, only 3 people, including that Moscow priest. When it happened that the lights were turned on at night to demask them, and two of those who knew where the switches were in the trenches keeping watch, people realized that it was the handiwork of that Moscow priest. Those events affected the community’s decision to join our church.

    For more than 2 years of war, there have been more transitions to the OCU in Kherson and Mykolaiv regions. 

    In Kherson region, there was a transition after the liberation. When our troops came, our chaplain came with them, and the local priest escaped, so he started to serve and people joined him. This is the right bank area, which is often shelled now. There was also a similar case near Kherson in Inzhenerne.

    You’ve already touched on the issue of humanitarian aid, were you supported by any organizations, perhaps parishes in the West of Ukraine?

    At first, there were humanitarian hubs, and they provided us with everything, and we took things wherever we could. This was at the very beginning, and then Lviv dioceses joined in, and the Primate helped. Despite the problems with fuel, we managed to find friends who supported us so that we could keep going. This is how we practiced as volunteers until June 2022, and then we started to do that on a full-time basis.

    Did you deliver this aid to your parishioners or the military?

    We helped both the military and our priests. We have Kherson National Guard, and our chaplain was a part of it. Our priest from Mykolaiv served in the TDF (Territorial Defense Forces). The priest from Skadovsk moved out and joined the TDF. In fact, about a third of our clergy joined the Armed Forces. Those who had lost their parishes joined the army, because it is important to win them back. One of our priests stayed near Bashtanka and provided assistance there as well. Another one took his family out and then joined. That’s how we managed to develop relations with the divisions. Our regular communication with the military made it possible for us to know where it was safe to go and where we shouldn’t go, so as not to endanger ourselves. One day we went to the north of Kherson region, to Mykhailivka, and our priest was there, he survived the occupation. We went there in October and brought a generator to the parish, because there was no electricity and it took months to restore it. We were driving along renovated roads, and there were shells sticking out in the middle of those roads, and the roads were covered with the corpses of Russian soldiers. It was early October.

    Did you come back to your diocese after the liberation of Kherson?

    At that time, I was already engaged in chaplaincy, so I combined my services. I visited the diocese from time to time, held services, and on New Year days (the beginning of 2023 – editor’s note) we went to Donbas with the division.

    So now you are more engaged in chaplaincy service, right?


    Did the priests return to the parishes after the de-occupation of Kherson region?

    Some of them returned, others keep their chaplaincy service. In particular, a priest from Chornobaivka returned. A priest from Kherson is now a chaplain in the National Guard, so he actually serves in Kherson region. The priest who moved from Oleshky is also now serving in Kherson.

    As you know, the Religion on Fire project team has been recording destroyed or damaged religious sites in Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Are there any destroyed or damaged buildings of the OCU in Tavriya Diocese?

    There are a few damaged churches. The right bank of Kherson is under constant shelling, so there are churches with smashed windows. There are no completely destroyed churches of the OCU in Kherson and Mykolaiv regions. The priest was most worried about the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, because it is the best church we have in the south of Mykolaiv. I literally forced him to leave the city, because he was very much concerned about this church, which he built himself, and did not want to leave it, despite the threat to his own life. So he went with us a few times to visit his homeland. That was the way to lighten his emotional load a bit. 

    However, not all of your priests decided to move away, to leave their parishes, right? Recently, everyone was shocked at the tragic news of the violent death of Father Stepan Podolchak from the occupied village of Kalanchak. Was he the only priest from your diocese who died at the hands of the Russian military?

    By this time, there were stories of interrogations of almost everyone who stayed at the parishes in the occupied territories. Everyone was visited and asked various questions, and their correspondences were reviewed. There is a priest in Lazurne who does not want to move, he says that he is not bothered, and there is a church of the Moscow Patriarchate there, so they have nothing on him. They have been living there for a long time – one has his own flock and the other has his flock, and they are more prudent. There are no conflicts between them and never have been, so he stayed there and serves at his place. We still have a priest in Rybalche, and he also sometimes contacts us, once every few months. He is a monk, he says he has nothing to lose but his parish, so he stayed there. Father Stepan Podolchak was an open book; he was very trusting, even naive in some cases. I offered him to move out. He said: “I serve God, I’m not in politics. Why should they do anything to me?” That was his attitude. Of course, you can’t bring a person round if he has made such a decision. He served in this parish for a quarter of a century, he built it with his own hands, and it was his creation. Maybe this also had some impact, there was a sense of responsibility. 

    There must also be two churches in Kalanchak?

    Yes, there is a Moscow one and ours. People say that the occupation authorities kicked him out of the club, out of the prayer room, and he went to the church. There is the OCU church in Kalanchak, but it is not yet finished. He held services in the church. People say that they have found themselves more in tune with the Ukrainian church and joined him. Recently, there have been incoming strikes, our troops bombed them, and the Russian military spent two weeks running around looking for someone who disclosed their locations. He may have been tortured because of such suspicions.

    Was he buried in this same village?

    His wife did not want the Moscow priests to participate in the funeral at all, so she and the parishioners buried him themselves. We remotely served the funeral service in his home village in Lviv region. At that time, I was at a base in Germany, and we served the funeral service there, holding the funeral in absentia, in other words, while they were burying him, people were praying in a completely different place. By the way, many priests served people in this way, praying remotely. We have also had cases where we have streamed: a priest holds a funeral service in one place, and people turn on online stream and join in this way. I personally held such a funeral for a soldier when our parishioners from Kakhovka remained under occupation and their son was killed before Kherson was liberated. There was also a funeral in Odesa on the day of the Intercession of the Theotokos (Pokrova). People begged for this funeral to be held. And they videotaped the entire funeral for his parents, wife and child, who were in Germany. Only the sister of the deceased was present at the funeral. All of them were involved in the funeral through video recording. At that time, we had already adjusted the technology of remote funerals.

    Was it actually an online funeral?!

    Let’s say it was. It was not possible to do so online for Father Stepan from Kalanchak because there was no signal. However, on Sunday, after the service, all of our parishes held a funeral prayer. 

    Can we say that this is a new form of service that has appeared as a result of a full-scale invasion?

    This form appeared not only as a result of the military invasion, but it had already appeared since the time of the Covid. Therefore, during the war, this remote prayer was no longer something new; people were aware of it and asked to pray in this way. Nowadays, it is accepted as a normal adapted technology of service.

    Are there any other changes in church life as a result of the war? You have already mentioned that many priests have become chaplains.

    An interesting thing that has really changed is about the so-called “annualists” – people who used to go to church once a year, at Easter. Almost a year ago, they consciously started finding out which church to attend so as not to go to the Moscow church. This is happening everywhere, both in Odesa and Mykolaiv. This is actually a mental change, which is very important. People strive for Ukrainianness, they want to be part of the Ukrainian church. It is very encouraging that this latent part of people (who are not quite religious) has begun to ask themselves “Where should we go?”

    So maybe there is a chance that the number of OCU parishes in the South of Ukraine will increase after the war is over?

    We hope so, but the problem, of course, is that many people have been killed and are being killed, and many have left. Those who survive, sure, they will need to be recovered, especially spiritually. These will be challenges for the church. Moreover, the military will come home, and they will also up the ante, and we will have to work with that as well.

    Do you think that the church will be able to take on such a responsibility of spiritual care?

    We are now engaged in this process. We look for premises to set up a rehabilitation center. We raised this issue even before the great war. Such centers need to combine the efforts of various experts – psychologists, doctors, teachers, and clergy. That’s a great deal of work. Furthermore, the technology is not yet fully understood, and we need to work on it. 

    What do you see as your future in the Church, since you have now actually become a chaplain?

    It’s hard to say what will happen. There may be further growth in chaplaincy, as this structure is now being developed. There may be some restructuring of dioceses, and it is also being actively implemented. It’s hard to say for sure, because I’m a man of the church, and when the church authorities decide to change my place of service, I’ll have to do it. As monks, as church people, we are called to serve where we are assigned. Just like the chaplaincy, I did not quit on my own, everything happened with the blessing of the Primate. Things happened so that my main city, Kherson, was occupied, and it was the need to serve by the side of the military, and that’s how chaplaincy started. For now, we are all striving to bring victory closer, and we will see how it goes. 

    When did you start your chaplaincy service?

    I have been officially engaged in chaplaincy since July 2022. There is a great shortage of chaplains, so it often happens that at the location of the division you have to serve civilian needs as well. Last year, I had to hold a funeral service in Lyman, because there was no one to go and bury the person. Those divisions (officers-in-charge) where there are no chaplains, but there is a need, approach us and we go. Chaplains also communicate with each other in the chat: “If you’re in this area, please contact me for cooperation”. These are work processes. These processes are similar to those of the Americans. When we were on an internship, we noticed that they also have such horizontal connections between chaplains. He is not the only one who deals with everything. If there is a nearby chaplain from another division, he can easily engage him to help his soldier. 

    Is the so-called confessional boundary between chaplains erased, are they just military chaplains?

    It depends. According to the chaplain’s ethics, we have to be tolerant of different religious beliefs, including chaplains of different denominations.  

    Finally, our traditional question: How do you see Ukraine after the victory? 

    You see, I always say it in a different way; our biggest problem is that we say “after the victory”. I believe that the basis for victory is the immediate elimination of the ideological basis.   I mean, we have to eliminate the ideological division of the Russian Orthodox Church to win, and this is quite possible in accordance with the current legislation. Unfortunately, not all the authorities, especially the local ones, are ready to act reasonably.

    Thank you for your service and for this interview, Bishop Borys!

    The interviewer:  Uliana Sevastianiv

    The conversation was recorded on February 22, 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.