On February 24th, the world watched as Russia invaded its neighboring country, Ukraine. Missiles and airstrikes struckvillages, towns and cities across Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv. Just hours later, the Russian military launched a large ground invasion from multiple directions. The impact was devasting to see on the news. And even more devasting to experience.
A group of Indian students, both Muslims and Christians, were stranded in Kharkiv. This is one of Ukraine’s largest cities and ithad been heavily shelled during the war’s early days. I became acquainted with this group through common friends and began receiving messages and phone calls. The students pleaded for evacuation help. Since the first Russian invasion in 2014, our organization has had two humanitarian sites in Eastern Ukraine. We also have friends all over the country. And yes, we could do it. But organizing evacuation for these students presented a moral dilemma. A personal one, for me. Imagine. I’m safe in my Miami home. And I am going to ask my Ukrainian friends to put their own lives in danger to help others in danger?
Millions of Ukrainians started heading the border with the European Union. At the same time, hundreds of the faith-based organizations operating in Ukraine decided to stay. And they acted upon what they deeply believe. Faith and works. Since February 25th, the day after the Russian invasion started, evacuation routes, call centers, and save havens were immediately mobilized by churches and other faith-based organizations in Ukraine. At the same time, religious communities in nearby countries such as Poland, Romania and Slovakia transformed their places of worship and other facilities into refugee camps. Germany and other western Europe countries were followed suite.
More than 4 million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, crossed the border seeking refuge in the first month of the war. Four million in one month. It’s a pretty large number. Despite the enormous strain on Europe’s infrastructure, incidents of people sleeping on the streets because they had nowhere else to go were rare. And those that did occur were quickly resolved
Religious freedom is one of the major factors that contributed to the ability of those countries, including Ukraine, to provide first aid, to accommodate and to help so many refugees.
Religious freedom helps save lives in the time of disaster. It entails more than just the right to worship in a designated location. It is the right to live in accordance with one’s conscience in both everyday life and during disaster.
We saw this firsthand after 2014. Our organization conducted peacemaking seminars for the Russian and Ukrainian religious leaders after first invasion. We held our seminars next to the demarcation line in Eastern Ukraine, where local people suffer the most because of the war. At some point, one of the participants said: “Now I understand the position of the Christian Church in this conflict. The Church is supposed to represent a third force – a force that brings aid, healing, restoration, and reconciliation to those who suffer.”
But to be able to carry out all of these, the Church and any other faith-based organizations with similar values, need religious freedom.
Many countries in today’s world, unfortunately, are attempting to control, manipulate, and restrict religious freedom. As a result of such practices, religious communities, particularly minorities, are unable to assist their countries’ most vulnerable citizens. I personally know of incidents where people of faith were detained and later charged with illegal religious activity, which included the distribution of food packages to malnourished families during the recent pandemic. Who knows how many people didn’t receive timely aid, suffered mentally and physically, became depressed, or went through divorce because of these policies.
The Book of Proverbs in the Bible states:
“Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.”
Jesus motivates His Church with the following words: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me”
The majority of religions motivate their followers to practice compassion.
But how they can practice it without religious freedom? Those of us who live in freedom have keen responsibility in times of peace and war.
Our organization’s Ukrainian staff refocused quickly when the war broke out, focusing on evacuations andestablishing a refugee center in Bautzen, Germany. On February 25th, we had five volunteers working in the call center, taking rescue requests and providing information about safe routes and safe havens in Western Ukraine. We renovated an old building in Lviv and started to use it as a logistical center. Within the week we had buses that transported refugees from the safe havens to the border and from the other side of the border to Germany. In Germany local church building was turned into a refugee center that provided food, assistance in registration with the government, a temporary place to live, a trauma healing therapy, and even a refugee-run hair salon.
As of now, we have 1800 people who came through our center in Bautzen including 32 from Mariupol, the city most severely damaged by Russians.
I don’t think any government structure would be able react that quickly as our and other faith-based organizations did. We didn’t ask for any permission to conduct the activities in accordance with our conscience. That is why these 1800 refugees under our care and hundreds of thousands more people were saved.
Now our main focus in ministering to the refugees is trauma healing. How does religious freedom and trauma healing correlate?
First, many people become more open to spirituality after experiencing great distress in their lives. Individuals turn to religion to cope with unbearable and unpredictable life events, a 2019 Oxford study shows. Religious freedom ensures that people going through such experiences are able to choose a religion in accordance with their conscience.
Second, religious freedom necessitates plurality and social cohesion, as well as groups and individuals who are whole, trauma-free, and capable of engaging, respecting, and protecting others who look, worship, and vote differently.
The students from India? They were saved under extremely dangerous circumstances. Christian volunteers risked their lives in reaching them, assisting them in boarding an evacuation train in Kharkiv bound for a safer part of Ukraine. The local church hosted both the Christian and Muslim studentsfor a few days before they crossed the border with Poland and departed for India. Each step of their journey was aided by faith-based organizations that exercise religious freedom, allowing people to think, express, and act on what they deeply believe.
Thank you very much!