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The Orthodox Easter celebration took on new meaning this year as Ukrainian refugees offered prayers for their country

Worshippers filled the sanctuary at the Blessed Virgin Mary church in Warsaw, Poland, for Easter Sunday mass on April 24. The crowd was so large that people lined the streets for blocks outside.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

They came by the hundreds to the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary church in Warsaw on Sunday, carrying their small baskets of coloured eggs and offering their prayers for Ukraine, a country most of them fled because of the war.

So many Ukrainian refugees showed up to the Orthodox church’s early morning Easter mass that they packed the sanctuary, filled a nearby garden and lined the sidewalk for several blocks in both directions. The church set up loudspeakers for worshippers to follow the liturgy but the crowd was so large that few could hear the service. That seemed to make little difference and most stood quietly for nearly three hours, leaving their baskets in a neat line on the street ready for priests to sprinkle them with holy water after the mass ended.

“I’ve lived in Poland for six years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Kate Samusenko, a 21-year-old university student from Kyiv. Her entire family is in Ukraine and her mother implored her to come home for Easter. But Ms. Samusenko felt too unsure about the war to go. Instead, she stood on the edge of the sidewalk and thought about her mother, brother, uncle and father. “I feel sad and alone,” she said.

At top, a priest sprinkles holy water on worshippers who lined the sidewalk outside the church. At bottom, Tanya Raspopova, a Ukrainian refugee, carries a food basket to be blessed.

Orthodox Easter is a supposed to be celebration of renewal, hope and everything that keeps families together. Those messages took on new meaning this year as fighting raged across Ukraine and the war entered its third month.

“Today, we still believe in the new victory of Ukraine and we are all convinced that we will not be destroyed by any horde or wickedness,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an Easter message from Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. “We are overcoming dark times and on this day I – and most of us – are not in bright clothes, but we are fighting for a luminous idea.”

While the war has torn apart families and caused untold devastation, it has also caused deep divisions in the Orthodox Church, which has about 300 million adherents, mainly in Eastern Europe.

The Russian Orthodox Church is led by Patriarch Kirill, who is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a staunch defender of Russia’s invasion. Patriarch Kirill has portrayed the war as a spiritual battle between the West and the Orthodox world and he has called on worshippers to unite behind Russia’s leadership.

His stance has been bitterly opposed by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is self governing but still falls under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian church’s leader, Metropolitan Onufriy, has called on Mr. Putin to end the “fratricidal war” and he has offered prayers for Ukrainian soldiers. “The war between these peoples is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy,” he said shortly after the war began. “Such a war has no excuse, neither from God, nor from people.”

The schism has also led to the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which has been given clerical recognition, or autocephaly, by the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is based in Istanbul. Patriarch Bartholomew has been critical of Russia’s invasion and in his Easter message on Sunday, he spoke of the “indescribable human tragedy” that is unfolding in Mariupol and other cities. “We call once again for an immediate end to the fratricidal war, which, like any war, undermines human dignity,” he said.

The church’s infighting took a back seat on Sunday to the message of Easter and the cry for peace among Ukrainians both inside and outside the country.

Worshippers gather in a garden for the start of a Easter Sunday mass near the church.

Tanya Raspopova, who is from Lviv in western Ukraine, came to the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to pray for her homeland and an end to the war. “We hope everything will be okay. It must be,” she said as she joined the throng on the sidewalk.

Father Piotr Kuszka, a senior priest at the church, said the congregation has doubled in size since the war began on Feb. 24 and refugees began flooding into Poland. The country has taken in more than one million Ukrainians and at least 300,000 have arrived in Warsaw.

Father Kuszka said he has found the trauma that many refugees face overwhelming at times. “They have so many emotions,” he said in an interview Saturday. “Fear, anger, hate, helplessness.”

He recalled meeting one woman from Irpin, outside Kyiv, who spent two weeks worrying about the fate of her mother and grandmother, only to learn that they’d been killed. “It was tragic,” he said. Other refugees have spoken about their guilt and have asked him for advice about whether to return home. Still, others wrestle with basic necessities, such as housing and work.

Father Kuszka said he tries to offer comfort through counselling, prayer and by drawing on the core message of Easter: Christ’s victory over death. But he said he often feels as though his efforts are little more than “tears in an ocean.”

Amid the sorrow and pain on Sunday, some refugees in Warsaw managed to find community by bonding with each other.

A group of refugees from Mariupol gather for an Easter lunch at at the HumanDoc Relief House in Warsaw. Below, Lali Dmitrieva, left, who once owned two restaurants in Ukraine, prepared a meal of traditional Ukrainian Easter food for the group.

In a shelter outside the city, 16 women and children from Mariupol gathered around a long table for a traditional Easter meal, including paska, a type of sweet bread, and brightly decorated cakes. Amid the laughter and conversation, Svitlana Kotova paused to talk about what Easter meant to her this year.

She arrived in Warsaw two weeks ago with her 16-year-old son, Nikita Zaorebelny. They’d spent nearly a month on the road, moving from Mariupol to one city after another in an attempt to stay ahead of the Russian army.

Even though they are now safe in Poland, Ms. Kotova’s husband is among the soldiers holding out against the Russians in Mariupol’s sprawling Azovstal steel plant and her parents still live in the city. Russian troops have repeatedly tried to storm the plant and they made another assault on Sunday, according to Ukrainian officials. Ms. Kotova received a few text messages from her husband three days ago but she’s heard nothing since. And she’s lost all contact with her parents.

“I really didn’t want to go to Poland because my city is Mariupol,” she said. “But my son wanted to go to Poland.” However, she’s found the city welcoming and supportive of refugees, and she’s thankful to Poles and a local charity called HumanDoc, which runs the shelter and helped her get to Warsaw.

“This year’s Easter celebration is totally different,” she said. “But we are very happy that we are in this situation and that we have a good place. We are also very grateful that we can meet in one table with our new friends.”

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