Ukraine: “We are prepared for sudden and unexpected death”

With the escalation of war in Ukraine, ACN spoke to Bishop Pavlo Honcharuk of the Latin Diocese of Kharkiv- Zaporizhzhia. At over 196,000 Km2, this is one of the largest dioceses in Europe, comparable to the whole territory of Syria or Belarus, covering almost all of Ukraine’s territory east of the Dnipro River. Currently the nearly 1,000 km war front falls almost entirely in his diocese, and cities are under constant shelling. In this conversation with ACN, the 44-year-old bishop describes life in his diocese at the moment. The interview was conducted by Fr. Jurij Blazejewski for ACN.

Could you describe the situation in your diocese, which has become the main theatre of this terrible war?

Our Church is alive and active. Priests and faithful are in their places, prayer continues to flow, as does the daily liturgy in parishes. More in some than in others, depending on the location: where war activities are going on, or territories are occupied, there is no such possibility. Yet our Church serves the people, the elderly, and children, as well as helping our soldiers, who defend our homeland.

A few months ago, you described the situation to ACN as shock and pain. Maybe at the beginning of the war there were hopes that it would end sooner, now it is clear that it will still last. How do you feel in this fifth month of the war?

The first shock is over, now there is permanent tension. We’re constantly in anticipation, especially when there’s shelling and it’s unclear when and where it will hit. The day before yesterday, it was some 1,000-1,200 meters from us, in a straight line. Last night, the bombs hit somewhere very close to us. I know that I will not hear the missile that strikes me. So, when I hear an explosion, it means I’m still alive. We are prepared for a sudden and unexpected death. That means we go often to sacraments, especially confession. It is a completely new experience, a different way of life. In the morning I get up and realise that I am alive.

In addition to that pain, suffering adds a sense of helplessness, because it overwhelms you. Evil is so great and so cynical that it topples the great of this world from their thrones. Wars are very easy to trigger, but how to stop them? On the other hand, there are also great signs of God’s presence amid the whirlwind of war, in the hearts of people who are serving in various places as soldiers, medics, firefighters, policemen, as well as in other services. By looking into the faces of these people, we can witness the great, divine power of love with which God inspires them.

Bishops helping in the war of Ukraine
Bishop Pavlo Honcharuk and Bishop Vasyliy Tuchapets helping the people during the war

What is the situation in Kharkiv now? Are people coming back, or have they now begun to leave again?

The situation is constantly changing. For example, one man might come to see his apartment, but immediately leave again. In general, people are leaving because of the constant shelling in Kharkiv. There is shelling before lunch, after lunch, at night. We are very close to the front line, literally twenty kilometres. Before the war, the city of Kharkiv had a population of 1.7 million. At the moment, there are about 700,000, less than half. But other cities in the diocese, such as Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, or Bakhmut, are very dangerous places in the actual warzone. Practically everyone has already escaped, there are few people left in those cities.

What is everyday life like in a city under constant fire?

The situation of each family or each person is different. If a person’s house is undamaged, they have a place to live, and if they have a job, they have funds. If the house is destroyed, the person has nowhere to live. And if they don’t have a job, if their workplace has been destroyed, the person is left without funds. And when on top of that they have been injured…

Sometimes people have only what they were wearing because everything burned down with the house. Therefore, some people need clothes, some need shoes, or medicine, or food, some just need support, and some a place to stay. Others need someone to take their family to safety. There are many problems and tasks ahead.

Do people have access to the things they need? Is there work?

The destruction of the city is calculated at about 15%. This is irreparable damage. But the city’s infrastructure is working, it can withstand the strain. Those plants and companies that can, continue to work, people in them still have jobs, and some others have been completely moved to other Ukrainian cities. Also, hospitals, and municipal services, which are responsible for electricity, gas, water, sewage, garbage collection, street cleaning and public transport are still working. It all works. If they destroy something, in twenty-four hours you wouldn’t even know anything happened, the municipal services clean everything up and take it away. The fire department, police and other services are fully working too. People try to live normally even though the war is so present in our city. Schools and universities work online.

And what about the financial situation? Are there problems with the banks? Are the shops open?

Only some banks have their branches open. Also, only certain ATMs work. For the most part, these physical locations remain closed for security reasons. But the entire financial sector is working, bank cards are working everywhere. Shops are partially open. I was in the market yesterday – only half of it burned down. Where stalls and kiosks survived, they are still selling there. But people can’t buy anything because they don’t have money. People here are not wealthy. The wealthy left long ago, but those who lived from pay check to pay check remained, they had to count every penny, and now they are in a very difficult situation. Even from the clothes, one can see that such a person has always led a dignified life, but the war has made them poor, or homeless. Many people have also been affected psychologically, and some began abusing alcohol.

In some cities, far from the front, people are already ignoring the air-raid alert. How about in Kharkiv, are people taking cover, or ignoring the alerts and just going about their lives?

At the beginning of the war, people reacted more when there was shelling, they generally did not come out of their basements and shelters. Many did not come out at all, they lived there constantly, and some are still very panicked to this day. There are streets where people hardly felt that the war is going on, because it was completely quiet. And there are also neighbourhoods where everything is destroyed. I see that most people have become braver, the tired psyche begins to suppress the sense of danger.

Cathedral of Kharkiv used as warehouse in the war of Ukraine
Cathedral of Kharkiv used as warehouse due the war

What is the security situation like?

People stand around and keep talking when the shelling is far away, and when the shells are heard closer, they scatter. But when nothing happens for two or three minutes, people come out again. The day before yesterday, a father was driving a car with his son. They had come to the city to file papers for university and were returning home. Suddenly a shell directly hit the car. Some debris was left from the car, but their bodies were torn to pieces.

As you see, people continue to drive during the shelling, and some will make it through, and some will not. But let’s not think that people are irresponsible. The danger lasts so long that somehow you have to learn to ignore it, but you also have to think and make decisions. Previously, people just didn’t control it: they would run away, and then they would start to think. But it is very exhausting when you have to run away ten times in a day.

Your diocese is probably unique, in that it has people fleeing from it, but also seeking refuge in it.

Some people from Kharkiv, or other frontline cities, moved to the nearest villages – to their relatives, or to empty houses there. But when they saw that it didn’t end, some began to go further. Inside the country, too, you need to find a place to live and work, and there are many difficulties involved. On the other hand, going abroad means that only the wife and children can leave, and the husbands have to stay in Ukrainian territory, because of martial law. This is a huge blow to the family, to the spouses, and causes great suffering.

People are constantly on the move. Some settle somewhere and get a job, and some fail. Sometimes it seems as if people are finally settled in a new place, and suddenly they are told: “sorry, we have to ask you to leave our house”. The fate of each move is different, but always difficult. Some come back because they say it is easier for them to live under fire, in danger, than to live as refugees.

In this situation, who are you? You have no rights, you can’t plan anything, you have nothing of your own. You always feel that you are hovering over someone’s head and that others are watching you too. It is very difficult psychologically. If someone wants to try, let them leave their home for a month, inviting themselves to another’s house, then another, then a third, then a fourth, always as a guest, and moving all the time.

How does the Church in your diocese work with refugees and internally displaced people?

Here in Kharkiv, we have the Marian Fathers and Caritas, they are helping displaced people, as many people who have lost their homes have come to the city. Here, not far from the border, twenty houses in one village were wrecked yesterday. Russian troops are simply destroying our Ukrainian villages, and then the survivors flee to the city, because it is no longer possible to live there. Displaced people from nearby villages are also coming to Kharkiv, although Kharkiv is still under shelling every day.

We also work in other places, we help by distributing humanitarian aid, things for children, food, diapers, or just being available to talk. There are such cases in Poltava, Sumy, Konotop, Dnipro, as well as in Zaporizhzhia and Pokrovsk.

What would you like to say to the benefactors who make it possible for ACN to send aid to Ukraine and to your diocese?

I thank you for this opportunity, and I would like, on behalf of all those who receive aid, as well as myself, to sincerely thank you all for your open hearts and your help. It doesn’t matter whether it was a lot or a little, what is important is that you have not remained indifferent to our situation. I sincerely thank you! May God bless you!

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Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

La visite du Pape nous remontera le moral, plus que toute autre chose. Tous les yeux de la planète seront dirigés vers Baghdeda. Le monde saura ainsi ce qui est arrivé à cette ville : les terribles destructions et la migration forcée. Ce serait également bien si nous recevions ensuite un peu plus d’aide et de soutien. Cette visite est très importante pour nous qui sommes ici, surtout après l’énorme migration forcée de tant des nôtres. Cette visite signifie que nous ne sommes pas seuls et qu’il y a des gens qui prient pour nous. Cela nous donnera de l’espoir, nous encouragera à rester dans notre pays et à ne pas le quitter.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Si j’ai l’occasion de le rencontrer, je voudrais le remercier pour sa visite qui nous rend très heureux, et pour ses prières. Je tiens également à le remercier pour toute l’aide qu’il nous a procurée ces derniers temps. Je n’oublie pas sa grande solidarité et le geste qu’il a fait en vendant aux enchères la Lamborghini qu’on lui avait donnée pour soutenir avec l’argent récolté la reconstruction de la plaine de Ninive. Je voudrais aussi qu’il continue à prier pour nous afin que la paix arrive en Irak.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

Je voudrais lui montrer l’église historique Al-Tahira et des photos de Baghdeda, je voudrais qu’il voie comment l’État Islamique l’a détruite et comment les gens d’ici ont eu le courage de la reconstruire.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa levantará el ánimo y la moral, más que cualquier otra cosa. Todos los ojos del mundo se dirigirán a Baghdeda. Así, el mundo sabrá lo que le sucedió a esta ciudad. La terrible destrucción y la migración forzada. También sería bueno si luego recibimos más ayuda y apoyo. Esta visita es realmente importante para nosotros, los que estamos aquí, especialmente después de la enorme migración forzada de tantos de los nuestros. La visita significa que no estamos solos y hay quienes rezan por nosotros. Esto nos dará esperanza, nos animará a permanecer en nuestra tierra y no dejarla.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Si tengo la oportunidad de encontrarme con él: quiero agradecerle su visita, que nos hace muy felices, y su oración. También quiero darle las gracias por todo lo que nos ha ayudado durante el último periodo. No me olvido de su gran solidaridad y del gesto de subastar el Lamborghini para apoyar con ese dinero la reconstrucción de la llanura de Nínive. También quiero que siga orando por nosotros para que la paz llegue a Irak.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Quiero mostrarle la histórica iglesia Al-Tahira y fotos de Baghdeda, quiero que vea cómo fue destruida por ISIS y cómo la gente de aquí ha sido tan fuerte para reconstruirla nuevamente.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes wird die Stimmung und die Moral heben, mehr als alles andere. Alle Augen der Welt werden auf Baghdida gerichtet sein. Dann wird die Welt erfahren, was mit dieser Stadt passiert ist, die schreckliche Zerstörung und die erzwungene Migration. Es wäre auch gut, wenn wir anschließend mehr Hilfe und Unterstützung bekommen würden. Dieser Besuch ist wirklich wichtig für uns hier, besonders nach der großen Zwangsmigration so vieler unserer Leute. Der Besuch bedeutet, dass wir nicht allein sind, und dass es Menschen gibt, die für uns beten. Das wird uns Hoffnung geben, es wird uns ermutigen, in unserem Land zu bleiben und es nicht zu verlassen.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Wenn ich die Gelegenheit habe, ihn zu treffen: Ich möchte ihm für seinen Besuch, der uns sehr glücklich macht, und für sein Gebet danken. Ich möchte mich auch bei ihm für alles bedanken, was uns in der letzten Zeit geholfen hat. Ich werde nie seine große Solidarität vergessen sowie die Geste, den Lamborghini zu versteigern (siehe Link zur Meldung), um mit diesem Geld den Wiederaufbau der Ninive-Ebene zu unterstützen. Ich möchte auch, dass er weiterhin für uns betet, damit im Irak Frieden einkehrt.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die historische Al-Tahira-Kirche zeigen und Bilder von Baghdida, ich möchte, dass er sieht, wie alles von ISIS zerstört wurde und welcher Kraft die Menschen hier es wiederaufgebaut haben.

What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
The papal visit will lift up our spirits and morale more than anything else. All the eyes of the world will be on Baghdeda. And in this way the world will know what happened to this city. The terrible destruction and the forcible ethnic cleansing. It will also be a good thing if afterwards we get more support and help. This visit is really important to us, to those of us who are living here, especially after the massive ethnic cleansing and expulsion of so many of us. His visit means that we are not alone and that there are people who are praying for us. This will give us fresh hope and encourage us to persevere, here on our own soil, and not leave it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
If I get the opportunity to meet him, I would like to be able to thank him for his visit, which has made us very happy, and for his prayers. I would also like to thank him for all he has done to help us in recent times. I have not forgotten his great gesture of solidarity in auctioning the Lamborghini in order to use the money to help pay for the reconstruction of our homes on the Niniveh plains. I would also like to ask him to continue praying for us and for peace to return to Iraq.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? Which places should he visit?
I would like to show him our historic Al-Tahira church, and some photos of Baghdeda. I’d like him to be able to see how it was destroyed by IS and how the people here have worked so hard recently to rebuild it once more.

Qu’est-ce que cette visite signifie pour vous ?

La visite du Pape est ce que nous désirions le plus ici. C’est une grande bénédiction. Nous avons un grand désir de le voir. Ce qui rajoute de l’importance à cette visite, c’est la situation de vulnérabilité que nous, chrétiens, subissons en Irak. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cette fragilité, toutes sont les séquelles de l’État Islamique. Toutes ces destructions ont grandement contribué à l’émigration des chrétiens. De nombreux problèmes pèsent sur nous. Mais par sa visite, le Pape nous donnera de l’espérance et de la confiance, il nous encouragera et réduira notre fardeau. Bien que la situation soit instable en Irak en ce qui concerne la sécurité, tout spécialement dans le domaine politique, on s’attend à ce qu’à l’arrivée du Pape, sa sécurité soit correctement assurée.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Je voudrais lui demander de me donner sa bénédiction, de bénir mon travail et le dévouement des prêtres d’ici, et de bénir le peuple par ses prières. Je voudrais lui demander d’aider tous ceux qui sont en danger dans ce pays, qu’ils soient chrétiens ou musulmans. Qu’il tente de mobiliser les pays du monde entier pour soutenir ce pays qui a besoin d’aide.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais qu’il visite l’église Al-Tahira, parce que c’est un symbole et un élément du patrimoine de Baghdeda. Cette église est la mère, le foyer et le patrimoine de chacun des habitants de Baghdeda. Nos ancêtres ont construit cette église, nous avons tous le sentiment d’en faire partie. Bien sûr, nous serions heureux qu’il visite de nombreux endroits, des églises, monastères et maisons traditionnelles, et qu’il rencontre également beaucoup de gens qui ont le désir de le voir.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa es lo que más hemos deseado aquí. Es una gran bendición. Sentimos un gran anhelo de verlo. Lo que agrega importancia a esta visita son las condiciones tan vulnerables que sufrimos los cristianos en Irak. Hay varios motivos para esa fragilidad, todas las secuelas que ha dejado el ISIS, esa enorme destrucción ha llevado en gran medida a la emigración de cristianos. Muchos problemas pesan sobre nosotros. Pero cuando nos visite, nos dará esperanza, confianza y aliento y reducirá esta carga. Además del hecho de que la situación de seguridad en Irak, especialmente la política, es inestable, se espera que a la llegada del Papa se garantice su seguridad de manera correcta.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Querría pedirle que me dé su bendición, que bendiga mi servicio y la entrega de los sacerdotes aquí y que bendiga al pueblo a través de sus plegarias. Le pido que ayude a todos los que están en peligro en este país, ya sean cristianos o musulmanes. Que intente movilizar a los países del mundo para que apoyen a este país que necesita ayuda.

 ¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda / Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me encantaría que visite la iglesia Al-Tahira, porque es símbolo y patrimonio de Baghdeda. Esta iglesia es madre, hogar y herencia de cada uno de los habitantes de Baghdeda. Nuestros antepasados ​​construyeron esta iglesia, todos nos sentimos parte de ella. Ciertamente, nos alegraría que visitara muchos lugares, iglesias, monasterios y casas tradicionales,  también que vea a muchas personas que anhelan verlo.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes ist das, was wir uns hier am meisten gewünscht haben. Es ist ein großer Segen. Wir spüren eine starke Sehnsucht, ihn zu sehen. Was diesen Besuch noch wichtiger macht, sind die äußerst prekären Bedingungen, unter denen wir Christen im Irak leiden. Es gibt mehrere Gründe für diese Zerbrechlichkeit. All die Folgen, die ISIS hinterlassen hat, diese enorme Zerstörung hat in großem Maße zur Auswanderung von Christen geführt. Viele Probleme lasten auf uns. Aber wenn er uns besucht, wird er uns Hoffnung, Zuversicht und Ermutigung geben und diese Last verringern. Auch wenn die Sicherheitslage im Irak, insbesondere die politische Situation, instabil ist, hoffen wir, dass bei der Ankunft des Papstes seine Sicherheit ausreichend gewährleistet ist.


Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Ich möchte ihn bitten, mir seinen Segen zu geben, meinen Dienst und die Hingabe der Priester hier zu segnen und die Menschen durch seine Gebete zu segnen. Ich bitte ihn, all jenen zu helfen, die in diesem Land in Gefahr sind, ob sie nun Christen oder Muslime sind; und die Länder der Welt zu mobilisieren, um dieses Land, das Hilfe braucht, zu unterstützen.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida / Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte, dass er die Al-Tahira-Kirche besucht, denn sie ist ein Symbol und Erbe von Baghdida. Diese Kirche ist die Mutter, die Heimat und das Vermächtnis eines jeden einzelnen Menschen in Baghdida. Unsere Vorfahren haben diese Kirche erbaut, wir alle fühlen uns als Teil von ihr. Sicherlich würden wir uns freuen, wenn er viele Orte, Kirchen, Klöster und traditionelle Häuser besuchen würde, und auch, wenn er viele Menschen treffen würde, die sich danach sehnen, ihn zu sehen.

What does the visit mean to you?
The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.


What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
I would like to ask him to give me his blessing, to bless my ministry and the hard work of all the priests here, and also to bless all the people through his prayers. I would ask him to help all those in danger in this country, whether they are Christians or Muslims. And that he might strive to encourage the countries of the world to support this nation, which is truly in need.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places ought he to visit?
I would love him to visit the Al-Tahira church, because it is a symbol and a rich cultural legacy of Baghdeda. This church is the mother, the home and the inheritance of every one of the inhabitants of Baghdeda. Our forefathers built this church, and we all feel we are a part of it. Of course, we would be happy for him to visit many different places – churches, monasteries and traditional homes – and also for him to be able to meet all the many people who are longing to see him.

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

Elle a une valeur morale, et non pas économique. Cette question occupera l’opinion publique mondiale, et tout spécialement irakienne. J’ai l’impression d’y tenir une place importante.


Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Ce sera formidable de faire sa connaissance, et je voudrais lui dire : « Nous avons besoin d’une protection internationale parce que notre communauté chrétienne a subi une migration forcée ».

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais lui montrer les églises et les maisons brûlées, afin qu’il voie les dégâts que l’État Islamique a laissés derrière lui dans cette ville. Et aussi notre Musée du patrimoine de Baghdeda pour lui présenter notre histoire et notre culture.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita tiene un valor moral, no económico. Este tema ocupará la opinión pública en el mundo y especialmente en Irak. Siento que tengo un lugar importante en él.


¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Será genial conocerlo y querría decirle “necesitamos protección internacional, porque nuestra comunidad cristiana ha sufrido una migración forzada”.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me gustaría mostrarle las iglesias y las casas quemadas, para que vea el daño que dejó ISIS en esta ciudad. Y también nuestro Museo del patrimonio de Baghdeda para presentarle nuestro historia y cultura.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch hat einen moralischen Wert, keinen wirtschaftlichen. Er wird die öffentliche Meinung in der Welt und insbesondere im Irak beherrschen. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich einen wichtigen Anteil daran habe.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Es wird großartig sein, ihn zu treffen, und ich möchte ihm sagen: „Wir brauchen internationalen Schutz, weil unsere christliche Gemeinschaft unter der erzwungenen Auswanderung gelitten hat“.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die Kirchen und ausgebrannten Häuser zeigen, damit er den Schaden sieht, den ISIS in dieser Stadt angerichtet hat. Und auch unser Heimatmuseum in Baghdida, um ihm unsere Geschichte und Kultur näher zu bringen.

What does this visit mean to you?
This visit has a moral value rather than an economic one. This is a topic that will engage public opinion around the world and especially in Iraq. I feel as though I have an important part to play in it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?

It would be wonderful to be able to meet him, and I would like to be able to say to him, “We need international protection, because our Christian community was forcibly displaced.”

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places should he visit?
I would like to be able to show him the churches and houses that were burnt out, so that he could see the destruction left behind by IS in this city. And also our Baghdeda Heritage Museum, so that we can show him our history and culture.