Little forgiveness for Russia on 'Forgiveness Sunday' in Ukraine

At a church service in Lvyv, Ukraine, the priest urged the congregation to forgive Russia for invading their country — but only so that Ukrainian soldiers won't be infected by the poisoned thinking behind it. One woman who listened to the plea said she can't even convince her father, who lives in Russia, that Russian troops have done horrible things to her country.

Ukrainian woman says her father in Russia refuses to believe how bad the war is

People attend service at Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic church in the historic old town of Lviv, Ukraine, on Sunday. The bishop made the case in his sermon that invading Russian troops should be forgiven. (Chris Brown/CBC)

On a day recognized throughout much of Russia and Ukraine as "Forgiveness Sunday," there was little forgiveness to be found during the service at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church in Lviv, Ukraine, near the border with Poland.

Bishop Stepan Sus made a passionate case during his sermon that the invading Russian troops who have systematically shelled and bombed Ukrainian cities over the past 11 days, killing hundreds of civilians, should, indeed, be forgiven — but, he said, only so that Ukrainian forces can have clearer minds and hearts when they fight them.

"What they [Russians] are doing is awful," said Sus, who presides over services at Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church in Lviv's historic old town.

"We have to forgive — not because we are weak, but because ... it is very important that we are not poisoned by this evil.".

WATCH | Lviv a focal point for those fleeing Ukraine attacks: 

Lviv a focal point for those fleeing Ukraine attacks

11 months ago
Duration 3:23
The western Ukrainian city of Lviv has seen an influx of people fleeing Russia's invasion of the country. On Sunday, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop urged his congregation to forgive Russia — but only so Ukrainian soldiers could preserve their humanity.

The historic church was unusually full on Sunday, with hundreds standing shoulder to shoulder in the ornate building as Sus delivered his plea to defend Ukraine, but not at the cost of dehumanizing the enemy.

"Despite all the terrible things that have happened in the war, our soldiers are keeping their human face — they want to respect the prisoners and our enemies — and they are doing that to try to stop this war immediately."

It's unknown how many Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the fighting, but the United Nations claims that as of Saturday, there have been more than 364 Ukrainian civilian deaths — a number that observers say is conservative.

'We have to forgive — not because we are weak, but because ... it is very important that we are not poisoned by this evil,' Bishop Stepan Sus said. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

'I can't forgive Russians'

On Sunday, during an attempted evacuation of the besieged southeastern port city of Mariupol, Russian troops violated the agreed-upon ceasefire and fired on civilians, forcing them to turn back, Ukrainian authorities said. The city has endured more than six days of near-constant shelling that has cut off food, water, power and heating supplies. Children have been among those killed in the shelling, the Ukrainian government has said.

The downtown areas of entire cities, such as Kharkiv, have been demolished by Russian artillery shells. And while the core of the capital, Kyiv, remains largely intact, suburbs have sustained immense damage, mostly to residential buildings.

At the Lviv church service, one middle-aged woman wearing a Ukrainian military uniform identified herself as Alexandra and said she was 52.

She said she joined the army three years ago because she was so fearful that Russia might attack further into her country, beyond the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Eatsern Ukraine, parts of which Russia-backed troops have controlled since 2014.

Alexandra, 52, joined Ukraine's military three years ago, fearing Russia might attack further into her country. She said that after listening to the bishop's call for forgiveness, she could not do as he asked. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Alexandra said she had just finished a 24-hour shift helping newly enlisted soldiers begin their training and adjusting to life in the army and decided to stop at the church on her way home.

But she said that after listening to the bishop's call for forgiveness, she could not do as he asked.

"It will be a sin for what I will tell you next," she told CBC News outside the service.

"I will forgive them [Russians] only if they will be in the ground. Only then I will forgive them. Now, I can't forgive Russians, it's impossible."

A family divided

Lviv is several hundred kilometres west from Kyiv and further still from the encircled and shattered Ukrainian cities that are closer to Russia.

The city has become a key transportation link for people from across the country trying to flee to Poland, and there are 20-kilometre-long lineups at the nearby border crossing.

Among those listening to the sermon outside the church was 26-year-old Anastasiya Solomko.

Anastasiya Solomko and her two-year-old son, Bogdan, escaped from shelling in Kharkiv. They arrived by train in Lviv a few days ago to stay with friends. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

She had come on a train with her two-year-old son, Bogdan, from Kharkiv a few days earlier to stay with friends in Lviv. She said her husband, Yaroslavl, stayed behind in Kharkiv to help with evacuation efforts.

"We were in my mother's house, which is close to a kindergarten, when artillery hit the kindergarten," Solomko said.

She said two shells struck the building next to the one they were in, destroying all of the windows in her mother's apartment, but the family wasn't hurt. They decided to get out the next day.

A man walks in front of a building damaged by recent shelling during the Ukraine-Russia conflict, in Kharkiv on Sunday. (Oleksandr Lapshyn/Reuters)

Kharkiv is a short drive to Russia's border, and Ukrainians and Russians share many family connections, which Solomko said makes the pain and hurt from Russia's invasion all the more unbearable.

"I talk to people in Russia, but they are living in another reality," she said.

"They don't understand what is going on with us."

Solomko, 26, says her father lives in Russia and refuses to believe that Ukrainian cities are being reduced to rubble by the Russian bombing campaign. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Solomko said even her father, who lives in Russia, refuses to believe her when she tells him about the devastation from the Russian bombing campaign and how it is reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble.

"He wrote me, 'Don't worry, they will come and save you from the Nazis,'" she said. "He doesn't understand what the war is."

'I believe the war will stop quickly'

Russian President Vladimir Putin has presented the attack on Ukraine as a "special operation" to rid the country of Nazis and to free it from the domination of the West.

The Russian government is attempting to hide the truth about the brutality of the invasion from its population — forcing practically all independent media outlets in the country to close for fear of violating a new law that carries a 15-year prison sentence for anyone sharing "fake" news about the war.

Western media outlets, including the CBC, BBC, CNN and others, have temporarily stopped reporting from within the country, and on Sunday Tik Tok suspend livestreaming and posting of new content to its video service within Russia for fear of violating the law.

All of the windows were shattered at the home of Solomko's mother in Kharkiv when Russian shells exploded nearby. The family had been staying together when the Russian attack on the city began. (Anastasyia Solomko)

Ukraine claims that as many as 11,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, although that figure has not been independently verified and the Kremlin has publicly acknowledged only a few hundred casualties.

Solomko said her husband wants her to cut her father out of their lives for his stubborn support of Putin, but she says she clings to hope that eventually he will see the truth.

"We talk to him, but it's difficult to explain."

A statue of the Roman god Neptune is wrapped up in preparation for removal from a fountain in Lviv. The city, near the Polish border, is far from the front lines of Russia's war, but residents worry that will not last. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Ukraine's army has performed better than some Western analysts expected, and even though they are outmatched militarily, Ukrainians say they expect their country will eventually defeat the Russian army, although at a very heavy price.

Solomko told CBC News that she refuses to accept that she and her family will ever have to live under Russian rule.

"I believe the war will stop quickly," she said. "It can't be any other way because our soldiers are doing everything they can."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.