International attention will certainly be focused on Ukraine in the run-up to the presidential elections on 31 March. Otherwise, the war and the ongoing crisis there seem far away.
Edward Kawa talked about how concern for the people in Ukraine is giving him sleepless nights. However, in spite of this, the 40-year-old Franciscan Minorite exudes a confidence in the faith that he also tries to pass on to others as part of his work as auxiliary bishop of the West Ukrainian archdiocese of Lemberg/Lviv. In Ukraine, the Roman Catholic Church is a small, but vital minority of approximately one million people. The Greek Catholic Church, which is united with Rome, has about five million members.
During an event held by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Cologne, Tobias Lehner talked with the auxiliary bishop about resignation and new hope, the efforts of the church for the populace and why young people want to remain in Ukraine in spite of the difficulties.
ACN: In late 2018, Ukraine once again became the focus of public attention: conflict broke out on the Crimean Peninsula, which has been annexed by Russia, over the transit rights of Ukrainian ships. As a result, martial law was declared for 30 days. How prevalent is the fear of war among the people?
Auxiliary bishop Edward Kawa: The fear is omnipresent – and not only since martial law was declared. After all, the war already started in 2014: first with the “Revolution of Dignity”, that is, the bloody protests on Kiev’s Maidan square, then with the annexation of Crimea and the fighting in eastern Ukraine. The situation remains very tense.
The war in eastern Ukraine, which has in the meantime entered its fifth year, is being carried out practically “closed to the public”. Little is reported by the media. The people in the affected regions around Donetsk and Luhansk are isolated. What do you know about their situation?
I am in contact with many people living in the war zone. They are suffering from an extreme lack of material goods. The situation is particularly dramatic in the district of Luhansk. The people are weary of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. All they want to do is to live in peace. There are small Catholic churches in Donetsk and Luhansk. These are always full. The people are yearning for oases of peace. This is what the Church is trying to be for them.
Many in the West have also not forgotten the protests on Maidan square in Kiev that lasted from November 2013 to February 2014. What role does this “Revolution of Dignity” play for the people in Ukraine today?
After the protests on Maidan square, many people hoped for change. However, not much came of it. That was a disappointment. Many people are worse off than before. They are still yearning for dignity. This yearning is very strong and is also tangible in the prayers being said in Church. The people wait and expect that the situation in Ukraine will improve.
You were the youngest bishop in the Universal Church at your ordination in May of 2017. Your work also brings you close to the youth. Many of them no longer see a future for themselves in Ukraine and go abroad. Can this trend be stopped?
One of our main goals is to remain in contact with the young people, whether they only go abroad for a short time or forever. We want to make sure that the young people feel part of a community and know that they are welcome at any time. The young men and women should not live their Christian faith anonymously in other countries. To achieve this, we try to encourage them through exchange, seminars and encounters. We address topics that are important to young people today. My impression is that the young people who discover this community for themselves no longer want to leave their country, in spite of all the difficulties this brings with it today. They want to remain and make a difference.
The Christians in Ukraine continue to be at fourth place of the list of countries that are supported by Aid to the Church in Need. What is your message to the benefactors?
Everywhere in the Ukraine we can see the signs of help from Aid to the Church in Need that God has given us. This help has enabled our Church to flourish again after communism. We are thankful for this every day. We know that this support will also bear fruit in the future. Thanks to the help of Aid to the Church in Need, we have also realised that we in the Ukraine are not isolated. Our Church is like a family: you just have to share everything you have with your siblings.