Le Pays De France - Balkan Orthodox faithful anguished by 'ungodly' Ukraine war

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Balkan Orthodox faithful anguished by 'ungodly' Ukraine war
Balkan Orthodox faithful anguished by 'ungodly' Ukraine war

Balkan Orthodox faithful anguished by 'ungodly' Ukraine war

Romanian Orthodox priest Georgian Paunoiu is tormented by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and how followers of the same religion became embroiled in such a bloody conflict.

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He is not alone in his anguish.

Both in Romania and neighbouring Bulgaria, religious leaders from the two countries' churches have expressed sympathy for Ukraine and condemned the invasion of one Orthodox country by another.

Rolling up the sleeves of his cassock, Paunoiu offers "prayers but above all good deeds" to bring a "sliver of comfort and hope" to Ukrainians.

"The images of small children fleeing, tired and hungry, holding their mothers' hands, are just heartbreaking," 45-year-old Paunoiu -- himself a father of three -- tells AFP.

- 'Our hearts are trembling' -

In the parish house attached to Bucharest's St Ecaterina Church where Pauniou officiates, aid for refugees is piled all the way up to the bathroom -- blankets, food, medicine and even a wheelchair.

A first convoy from the church carrying aid to the Ukrainian border left on Wednesday to help some of the tens of thousands of refugees crossing into Romania daily.

"Our hearts are trembling," says Paunoiu, who says he has been cheered by the willingness of his flock to donate.

Aurelian Reit, priest of the St Trinity parish in the central city of Brasov, had a similar reaction when he made an appeal for donations.

There was an "unexpected flood" of worshippers bringing mattresses, duvets, tents and sanitary products.

"We filled 132 crates, and some are already on the way," Reit told AFP.

"As long as the war continues, this outpouring of solidarity will continue," he says, adding that 63 Ukrainian children have been welcomed at the community centre attached to his church.

- 'Human Antichrist' -

In Bulgaria, Patriarch Neophyte has urged the faithful to "pray for an immediate end to the war".

"Let us open our hearts to our brothers who are suffering and let us help them!" he said at a prayer marking the beginning of Lent, openly taking the Ukrainian side despite his church's perceived closeness to Russia.

In a March 3 address, Metropolitan Nikolay of Plovdiv openly criticised the "war which has pitted Orthodox Christians against each other".

"Russia has attacked Ukraine. It is so ungodly!" he thundered.

"This is not a war for our faith, but a war fed by pride, which is wounding the Orthodox church."

Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees will be hosted in Bulgaria's monasteries.

Romania's Patriarch Daniel similarly voiced his "grave concern" at the invasion launched "by Russia against a sovereign, independent state".

The spokesman for the patriarch's office, Vasile Banescu, went further, denouncing the "cynical complicity of the opulent Patriarch" Kirill, head of Russia's Orthodox Church, with a "murderous" government.

He condemned "the human Antichrist who pretends to believe in God and in patriotism," in a thinly veiled reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kirill has called Moscow's opponents in Ukraine "evil forces" bent on breaking the historic bonds between the two countries.

But in the small room where he sorts the donations for refugees, Paunoiu rejects the idea that true Christians could have started this war.

He reaches for a particularly apt quotation of Jesus: "Blessed are the peacemakers."