Northern Ireland must stand ready to welcome refugees from Ukranian warzone

Ukranians flee over a broken highway bridgeUkranians flee over a broken highway bridge
Ukranians flee over a broken highway bridge
As President Vladimir Putin gradually built up Russia’s troops just across the border to the east, south, and north of Ukraine, few people imagined it was a precursor to the full-scale and brutal military onslaught we have seen on the free and independent nation.

While President Putin claimed his troop movements were only for training purposes, many thought it was in fact dramatic posturing to extract negotiated gains in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine where Russian separatists have been engaging the Ukrainian army for years, without the west actually taking much notice.

Yet on February 22 all that began to change. President Putin, recognising the self-declared independent Donbas republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, proceeded to send Russian troops into them on what he termed a peace-keeping mission.

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Two days later he gave the order for his troops to invade the wider Ukraine country, claiming they only had military targets.

How false all the Russian president’s explanations turned out to be.

We have now witnessed a catastrophic military crisis unfolding, with thousands of people killed and injured, a relentless flow of refugees fleeing for safety and citizens taking shelter underground, or joining up to fight for their country’s precious freedom under the inspirational leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Churches across the world soon called for prayers for peace and for the people of Ukraine, organising humanitarian relief efforts.

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The Christian organisation Open Doors has reported the president of the Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary, Yarsolav Pyzh, as saying that churches were prepared to help those in need.

The general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen, has spoken out, urging the churches in Europe and globally to form “a strong alliance of solidarity” with the Ukrainian people.

Dr Sørensen’s organisation immediately recognised that the invasion threatened not only the lives of Ukrainians but also peace throughout Europe and beyond.

The general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, the Rev. Anne Burghardt, called for “an immediate de-escalation” of hostilities, but the situation just got worse.

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The London-based Church Times newspaper in turn reported the Kyiv Orthodox leader, Metropolitan Onufriy, at odds with the shockingly pro-Kremlin Moscow Orthodox Metropolitan Kirill, as appealing to President Putin to halt his offensive, adding in his statement that war between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples was “a repetition of Cain’s sin”. In the Bible, Cain murdered his brother Abel.

Uncertainty about even the immediate future only adds to the toll of human suffering. On Sunday I was taking a service in a country church in Co Tyrone. The tranquillity of that church and its worship was such a contrast to what we were all witnessing on our television screens in non-stop reporting from Ukraine.

As no doubt in countless other churches, we remembered the people of Ukraine, the victims of war and the leaders of the nations.

We must be forever thankful for the freedom, peace and the security of life that we enjoy in Northern Ireland. We have had a time of much violence and we do not want to go back to those dark days.

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Now, the International Criminal Court in The Hague has opened an investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine and is collecting evidence after many countries formally referred reports of atrocities.

The United Nations has made clear its condemnation of President Putin’s campaign, as have the EU, the UK, the US and countless other nations individually.

Those condemnations along with massive sanctions measures have left President Putin a very isolated figure.

People are questioning his state of mind, with one commentator describing his top generals pictured at a meeting with him as looking “quizzical”. They certainly did look pensive and perplexed.

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The sanctions will in turn badly hurt not only the oligarchs but sadly also ordinary Russian people, many of whom have been misled by state propaganda as to exactly what has been happening.

Nonetheless the ubiquitous mobile phone is making it difficult for the Kremlin, despite its media clampdowns, to suppress the truth, with relatives and friends in Ukraine and further afield in the west sending their accounts of events. In due course, returning soldiers will also have things to say.

International humanitarian aid and supplies of military equipment have been assured while NATO has made it clear that it will avoid direct military engagement with Russian forces in order to avoid the situation spiralling out of all control and into a third world war.

Seeing the courage and the deep feelings of the Ukrainian people is inspiring and if we in Northern Ireland are asked to receive any of them as refugees from these terrible days we should certainly open our hearts to them and welcome them with love and acts of kindness.

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What has happened in Ukraine should alert all the nations of the world to the fact that, while they have the right to self-defence, aggressive militarism is the road to nowhere.

It is fervently to be hoped and prayed that whatever negotiations remain possible, the UN initiatives and other international actions will indeed bear fruit for the good of the people of Ukraine and, indeed, of the world.

Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

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