His determination is unshakable. “These are our Ukrainians,” says Pastor Oleh Polianko. The cleric, wearing yellow robes, gray hair, friendly eyes, is standing in the Evangelical Church of Saint Paul the Apostle on Grazer Platz in Berlin-Schoeneberg and is explaining how he is trying to offer his compatriots the spiritual home they are looking for after fleeing .
Founding a Ukrainian community, says Polianko, became necessary at the latest with the Euromaidan, when around 100 protesters died in clashes between democracy activists and those in power in Kyiv at the time. At that time, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was still on the side of the Kremlin-controlled Yanukovych government. “When the Maidan was bleeding and the independence revolution began, the Ukrainians in Berlin also said: We need our own Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” says Polianko. In 2015, after the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine, the time had come: the first Ukrainian community independent of the Moscow Patriarchate was established in Berlin.
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At first, 20 to 30 people attended the services in the small village church in Alt-Hermsdorf, which initially took in the Ukrainian believers. But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, this provisional solution was no longer enough. Now that a quarter of a million war refugees are in Berlin, the new Ukrainian community under the umbrella of the Evangelical Church on Grazer Platz is experiencing an enormous influx. At the Orthodox Easter festival at the end of April alone, the Ukrainian believers filled the entire lawn around the church with their offerings, a unique experience.
Today Pastor Oleh Polianko shows how he wants to integrate his church even more practically into the German church in the future. “We raised money for a new iconostasis that we can erect and dismantle more quickly,” he says with satisfaction. To do this, the clergyman and his parishioners assembled collapsible metal frames. Now the images of saints projected onto fabric are pulled onto it. A mobile icon wall, that is, that goes into the storage room when the Orthodox service is over.
In the meantime, the Ukrainian refugees also feel comfortable here, although some things were of course unfamiliar at first, such as the monitors from which one can read the liturgy, or the comfortable pews, which they did not know from home. “Now we don’t have to stand for hours anymore,” says an elderly woman and smiles.
Later, during the services, many tears flowed – with happiness, but also many with sadness. Father Oleh Polianko is baptizing two children, both about six months old, this Sunday. The Russian attack has prevented countless baptisms, which should take place in Ukraine if possible in the first month of life. People sat in the basements and subway stations – or on the train to Germany.
Now the time has come to slowly steer life abroad in an orderly manner. But many refugees are also in despair because they were unable to bury their relatives who died in the war. In Berlin they pray that their mother, father, grandparents and other relatives or friends will be buried with dignity and said goodbye back home. That’s all they can do at the moment.
[Also read the Tagesspiegel-Plus article: The survivor’s guilt complex: how to enjoy peace when bombs are falling at home?]
In the meantime, the church struggle in Ukraine continues: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate condemned the war and proclaimed its “complete self-determination and independence” at a council on May 27, 2022. She wants to join the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was officially founded in 2018. Around 400 communities have already taken this path since the beginning of the Russian invasion. The Ukrainian congregation in Berlin also feels a part of the independent mother church in Kyiv. The split is painful but necessary, says Pastor Oleh Polianko. The Moscow Patriarchate is keeping the people in the dark about the true nature of the Russian attack on Ukraine. “War is not only about defending territory, but also about the fight for the truth.” In this respect, the step towards independence officially taken in 2018 is all the more justified today. “Ukraine is an independent nation that will choose its own path of economic, political and ecclesiastical development,” emphasizes the pastor.
[Also read the Tagesspiegel-Plus article on this subject: Religion in Ukraine: The Land of Churches]
In any case, the Schöneberg Church of St. Paul the Apostle has quickly developed into a center for spiritual and also humanitarian aid for the refugees, who are primarily looking for support after fleeing. There is a Sunday school for the believers there, where patriotic songs are sung about suffering in war, belief in victory and a resurgence of free Ukraine. In Ukrainian, of course, but the doors of the church are open to everyone. “First and foremost, we help people find the peace of mind and hope they desperately need, but we also help them with housing, household items and other things,” says Polianko.
After the service, people stay together for a long time. One by one they approach the cleric and tell him how he or she escaped the war in Ukraine. Many have experienced terrible things and want to share their worries with him.
The priest is certain that the vast majority of Ukrainians who came to Berlin as refugees will return home. “Ukrainians do not see themselves as immigrants who have left their country forever.”
The separation of the families – the women and children at the place of refuge, the men and often the elderly in the Ukraine – is a “great test”. With God’s help, like other historical crises before, we will get through this bad time. “Ukraine has seen everything – and survived. We are a friendly and hardworking people. Now Ukraine is giving its fruits to the whole world,” says Rev. Oleh Polianko. The people who have gathered around him in front of the church nod in agreement.