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Kharkiv bishop says attacks on Ukrainian city ‘almost incessant’

The front line of Russia’s war in Ukraine is the Kharkiv region in the country’s northeast, which has been hit by deadly Russian attacks.

Ukraine’s second-largest city was a major target for Russian forces in the eastern Ukraine campaign during the 2022 invasion. It lies less than 32 kilometers from the Russian border and has remained under fire since the invasion began. Nearly a quarter of the city was reported to have been destroyed by April 2024.

Bishop Pavlo Honcharuk of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia recently visited the international headquarters of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), where he said the airstrike warning for his city is sounding almost non-stop.

“We live from day to day. S-300 missiles launched from the Russian side hit Kharkiv in less than 39 seconds. Because they travel so fast, the missile falls first and then comes the airstrike warning. Everyone living within 70 kilometers of the front is the first in the Russian line of fire. However, in Ukraine there is no safe place. Attacks can happen anywhere,” he told ACN.

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“Here in Kharkiv, the air raid warning is sounding almost non-stop. And at all hours of the night. Many people still do not dare to go out into the street. There are many suicides because people do not know what will happen next,” the bishop continued.

“Schools and kindergartens are closed. Many children are studying at metro stations. I know a teacher who goes to a nearby place where there is Wi-Fi every day and from there she teaches online classes to her students, who are now spread across 18 countries,” explains Honcharuk.

The bishop said that in Kharkiv everything has been destroyed and people have no houses or apartments.

“A 73-year-old man came to see us and he had nothing with him. Fortunately, he was out when the rocket hit his house. But everything disappeared. We bought him clothes,” he said.

Honcharuk told ACN that a quarter of his diocese is occupied by Russians and the parishes in that area have no priests.

“Before the 2014 war (when Russia occupied the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas), we had 70,000 faithful in our diocese. Today there are only 2,500 left,” the bishop explained.

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Russia launched a new campaign in the region in early May but has made no major gains in two months, although Ukraine has suffered heavy casualties.

Honcharuk told ACN that military chaplains are essential and provide pastoral care for men at the front and their families. He said his diocese has 46 military chaplains.

“The young man in front is a solitary fighter. He feels very alone because there are very few people he can tell how he is doing,” said the bishop.

He said that a soldier would not trust a psychologist because he does not trust himself or his family, because he would want to protect them.

“What these men have in their souls is a nightmare. That’s why a military chaplain is so important. He listens to what men have in their souls. Often you don’t know what to say; you’re just there,” Honcharuk said.

The bishop told ACN that during a conflict like this, Church leaders must be with the people, “accompanying them, carrying their burdens with them, praying with them and serving them.”

“We need to find ways to help them through this difficult time. It is not just about material help, but also psychological help. It is important for people to understand what is happening inside them so that they do not condemn themselves, because fear also leads to aggression. This is normal in a war situation. So we need to talk about it,” says Honcharuk.

“We have few specialists and experts and that is a problem. ACN has supported the psychological training of priests, religious and volunteers in relation to war wounds. This is very important and we are very grateful for it,” he added.

“Our mission is to proclaim Christ and his word. Prayer is the most powerful weapon. Many people ask: when will the war end? There is no answer. But we must not stop praying,” he said.