The participants in the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC), taking place in Karlsruhe, Germany, 31 August to 8 September, 2022, have had the war as one of the foci of their discussions. They have heard from church leaders, young people, and church agencies about the humanitarian response of churches in Ukraine, Russia, and the surrounding countries, and around the globe, all of whom have responded in their own way to the war and its impacts globally.
Churches have been involved in praying and in providing practical humanitarian help since the first day of the invasion. “The churches have been able to respond very quickly and very un-bureaucratically since the first day of the Russian invasion into Ukraine,” said Marina Dölker of HEKS (Swiss Church Aid). “They have played a key role in responding to the needs of refugees, and those who have stayed in Ukraine ever since.”
Bishop Sándor Zán Fábián, bishop of the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia and Ukraine, described the work of the 180 congregations in the western part of Ukraine in his diocese. “From the very first day of the war, members of our congregations went out to the road close to the Hungarian border, giving all kinds of support to those on the move from the Ukrainian war – they gave drinking water, food from their own homes, helped transport people from the railway station to the border.”
The parishioners responded spontaneously, because they know they are called to be merciful, to be hospitable, to help those who have it even worse than them, coming from the eastern part of Ukraine.
Transcarpathia is the only region of Ukraine that has not experienced fighting directly, so many Ukrainians have fled to the region, and the response of the church was key for those internally displaced people, providing food, shelter, medical aid, and other necessities.
“The church runs four schools in the region, and they stopped the schools, and transformed into shelters for the refugees,” said Dölker. “They have started to scale up their diakonal operations, they are shipping bread to other parts of the country where supply was very difficult. The church has taken up responsibilities that the government should provide.”
“We use already existing ecumenical relations we have in the region to make sure that food transport, hygiene articles, and all kinds of direct first response can reach the conflict zones in the east. We reach out to our partners – Hungarians, Ukrainians, Protestants, and Orthodox as well to make sure that what we receive from our partners reaches the people in need of support,” said Fábián. “We pray together whenever we send a transport to the eastern part of the country, and we pray together for peace in the region,”
The ACT Alliance, a global network of churches and church-based agencies whose members are linked to WCC or The Lutheran World Federation, launched a $23 million appeal for humanitarian response in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, and has so far raised over $20M for that work. HEKS is one of the implementing members of the appeal, working directly in Ukraine through churches like the Reformed Church.
Rev. Dr Dagmar Pruin, president of Bread for the World in Germany, linked the situation in Ukraine to its broader impact globally. “The war will plunge millions in the rest of the world into hardship,” she said. “Acute hunger will increase by 47 million people this year, and an additional 71 million will be driven into poverty.” The food crisis, high inflation, energy prices, and geopolitical upheaval are reaching all corners of the world, and ACT Alliance members are responding there as in Ukraine.
Churches across Europe have responded to the needs of those impacted by the war, but also work to address the issue of migrant rights. “I believe that the Church needs to continue to put pressure on governments to address [the migration] crisis and ensure that racism does not play a part in the decisions of who can enter a country or not.” said Annika Matthews of the Church of England.
The response to humanitarian need in and around Ukraine is not short term, and work is underway already by churches to begin to address the needs of the millions of displaced by the war for warm, safe and dignified shelter in the coming winter, as well as the need for education, livelihoods, food, clothing, and much more.
The role of the church in such a situation is to show compassion, which means that it needs to see all people as human beings, and treat them as children of God. “We don’t have to give our churches the motivation to do good or show mercy,” said Fábián. “If we hadn’t had our partners around the world, we couldn’t do our diaconal work. The support has allowed us to act locally to support the needy and poor for many years. In this situation, we couldn’t refuse anybody- we had to respond to needs equally.