Lviv, Ukraine – On the eve of the most important Christian religious celebration of the year, Ukrainians have clung to centuries-old traditions of Easter amid a war that has brought destruction and grief to much of the country.
At the Greek Catholic Church of the Transfiguration in the historic center of Lviv, a row of churchgoers stood next to wicker baskets they brought, covered in embroidered cloth and filled with sausage, smoked ham, Easter bread, butter, and cheese to bless them. a priest.
It was a ritual celebrated throughout Ukraine, in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, which follow the Julian calendar and will celebrate Easter this year on Sunday.
The Easter breakfasts were to be eaten after Sunday mass.
Other residents carried Easter baskets across the cobbled streets on their way to churches of each denomination located in the Central Market District, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As the sirens sounded, cafes closed and a group of street musicians took a break from the folk music they were playing on traditional Ukrainian stringed instruments.
At a nearby intersection, some residents placed bouquets of flowers at the feet of a statue of the Virgin, next to piles of white sandbags designated to protect the statue from bombing. Since the beginning of the war, churches have covered religious statues with a protective sheath and cast stained glass windows.
Russia, which is predominantly Eastern Orthodox, rejected calls this week by Ukraine and the United Nations for a ceasefire on Easter.
Although most Ukrainians and Russians are Orthodox Christians, long-running tensions between church leaders in the two countries have worsened in recent years. In 2019, the Church in Ukraine, which had been affiliated with Moscow since 1686, was granted its independence.
Russian airstrikes this week killed at least seven people in Lviv, but the city has escaped most of the fighting raging in the east of the country over the past two months. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have sought refuge here or passed through them on their way to Poland and other countries.
At the central train station in Lviv, volunteers distributed Easter chocolates to displaced children coming from other cities. One bounty family walked for five days with their four children from the devastated southern port of Mariupol on their way to a relatively safe area in western Ukraine.
Many Ukrainians said they were sticking to their traditions in the face of the grief and fear the war had brought.
“This year there is not much happiness in people’s faces and eyes,” said Miroslava Zakharkev, an English teacher at the college. “Many people are sad, many men have gone to the front.”
Ms Zakharkev, 48, said she had done a traditional Easter cleaning of her house in a village near Lviv. She had also baked Easter bread and prepared foods to put in a basket for blessing in the church.
“We hope there will be no bombs and no warnings, but no one knows what will happen so we are a little scared,” she said.
For many of the displaced, the war has also led to separation from their families.
Anna Mokoida, 22, said it was the first Easter she spent away from her family, who had resided in Bila Tserkva, a town 50 miles south of the capital, Kyiv, while fleeing to the southwestern city of Chernivtsi.
Despite the danger and uncertainty, many Ukrainians were determined to stick to tradition.
“Easter in wartime is like the sun on a rainy day,” said Ms. Mokoida. “It is very important now that you have days like this just to feel alive and remember that there was life before the war.”
Nyonella Vodolska, 22, was also displaced. She was staying in the western city of Kalush, away from her family in Kyiv. To ease the pain of being separated from her family, she said she bought a white T-shirt with traditional dark red embroidery to wear on Easter.
“Now I fully understand the importance of maintaining such traditions,” Ms. Vodolska said. “Doing something natural, celebrating something that reminds me of the good times, in my childhood, brings me hope.”
In much of the country, a curfew remained in place throughout Saturday night, when many Christians traditionally held vigils and celebrated midnight mass to commemorate those who waited on Holy Saturday near Christ’s tomb. Instead many people planned to watch Mass on TV.
“We must understand that the gathering of civilians at a predetermined time for service throughout the night can be the target of missiles, aircraft and artillery,” Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on Saturday morning.
In Lviv, the authorities initially announced that the curfew would be lifted but then reimposed it after receiving intelligence that pro-Russian saboteurs might be planning attacks in the city.
Earlier in the week, the head of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epifani, asked clergy to abandon Easter night services in areas affected by the fighting for fear of Russian bombing.
“It is not hard to believe that this will actually happen, because the enemy is trying to completely destroy us,” he said in a televised address.
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