An Italian town linked to Russia by a revered saint feels the sting of war in Ukraine

BARI, Italy – As Orthodox chants in Russian and the voice of the Ukrainian bishop echoed through the ancient crypt, worshipers lowered their heads wrapped in headscarves to the marble floor, held candles above their Cyrillic prayer books or wept under low stone arches.

All had come to pray at the tomb of Saint Nicholas, venerated by Orthodox Christians across the former Soviet bloc, in the basilica that bears his name in the port city of Bari, on Italy’s southern coast. Although more than 1,000 miles from the conflict in Ukraine and united in their reverence for the saint, the congregation of mostly women dressed in long winter coats created an eerily out of place diorama of all that binds and tears their ancestral heritage. homelands.

A woman wearing the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag said she had asked the saint for a miracle: to stop Russia’s invasion of her home country. A nearby Belarusian woman defended Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Likewise the Serbian monk assisting the bishop in prayers. Russian worshipers in the choir refused to assign responsibility for the war.

“It’s a sin what Putin is doing,” said Lali Bubashvili, 50, a woman from Georgia, a former Soviet republic, who was sitting in a back seat, recalling Russia’s invasion there. “Years ago, we suffered the war. We know it’s a barbaric thing.

The relics believed to belong to Saint Nicholas were brought from present-day Turkey by sailors 1,000 years ago, and his bones have since been buried in Bari. Although the basilica that houses them is Roman Catholic, once a week it invites Orthodox worshipers to hold their own service using the crypt.

The presence of the relics has long made Bari an unusual pivot in relations between Italy and Russia and between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.

In 2007, Mr. Putin himself came to Bari and knelt in front of the tomb of St. Nicholas, just as the faithful did during the prayer for peace. In 2009, Italy returned ownership of an Orthodox church named after St. Nicholas to Russia to strengthen ties with Moscow.

Years earlier, Mr Putin had donated a statue of the saint which stands in the square in front of the basilica, along with a signed plaque honoring “friendship and cooperation” dedicated to “citizens of Bari”.

But Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has made the ancient crypt, and the city around it, an unexpected satellite for the pain and bitterness of the conflict. On the streets of Bari, the war has caused tension between Ukrainian and Russian residents and headaches for local politicians.

Local people recently demanded the removal of the plaque bearing Mr. Putin’s dedication. Although the mayor of Bari, Antonio Decaro, last month brought yellow and blue flowers to the foot of the statue of Saint Nicholas in sympathy with Ukraine, he opposed the removal of the dedication, saying that it would undo a piece of history.

“They won’t take down Putin’s placard,” said Inna Honcharenko, 38, from Vinnytsia near Kiev, as she led volunteers collecting donations for Ukraine in another part of town. “There is too much of Russia’s hand here.”

She said the war had revealed ugly tensions between Eastern European neighbors in the city. The Russians walked past the collection center and said the Ukrainian flag hanging in front was only good for cleaning their shoes. She said vandals smashed her window and Russian friends in Bari stopped talking to her.

But the influx of help from Italians bringing pasta, rice, nappies, baby food, canned beans and more encouraged her. “From Italy we help our boys who are fighting for our people,” she said in front of a poster of Mr Putin that read “Killer” with a bloody handprint on his face.

Nearby, at the Emerald-Domed Russian Orthodox Church, a woman behind closed doors explained that the church, despite its usual opening hours, was now closed to visitors. “This is the territory of the Russian Federation,” she said.

The church priest, Viacheslav Bachin, refused to answer when asked about the war. He referred to the position of Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has often aligned himself with Mr Putin and who has moved from avoiding blaming the war in Ukraine to blaming the West.

In 2017, in an effort to improve relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, Pope Francis loaned Patriarch Kirill some of the relics of St Nicholas, which left the church for the first time in around 1,000 years. . On the day the Lenten relic – believed to be the left rib closest to the heart of St Nicholas – arrived in Moscow, Mr Putin kissed the glass case that contained it.

In the basilica’s crypt last week, Father Bachin swung incense around the tomb, hanging from lanterns and icons, and Bishop Gedeon, a prominent Kiev Orthodox bishop whose first name is Yuriy Kharon, led the prayer. It seemed to send a message of reconciliation. But the bishop is a member of the Orthodox Church of the Russian Patriarchate in Ukraine.

In 2019, amid heightened tensions with Russia, Ukraine established its own autonomous Orthodox Church, altering a centuries-old religious tradition under which the Church in Kiev responded to Moscow. That year, the Ukrainian government expelled Bishop Gedeon and revoked his citizenship for actively supporting Russia’s armed aggression in the country.

Part of Mr. Putin’s reasoning for the war has been to accuse the Ukrainians, without evidence, of planning the “destruction” of the Moscow Patriarchate Church in Kyiv. The breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox Church vehemently denounced the Russian invasion as fratricide.

“We say peace to all, don’t judge each other,” Bishop Gedeon, whose Ukrainian citizenship was later restored by a court, said in an appeal for the end of the service. As congregants came out, he said it was essential to “not seek to complain” and to pray and push for dialogue.

But some worshipers in the crypt had a clear idea of ​​who was to blame.

Larisa Dimetruk, 62, from Lutsk in northwestern Ukraine, said she had come to implore St Nicholas to make the Russians “arrest their president”.

“Only the people can stop it,” she said. “We did not come here to pray together. We came here for a miracle.

But some supported Mr. Putin. Larysa Makarava, 50, a Belarusian who lives in Bari, said that before the service she took her daughter, who was standing beside her, to the eye doctor, who said he thought Mr Putin was crazy. “I told him absolutely no. I opened his eyes,” she said, adding that Mr. Putin “is obliged to do this. He is not against the people.

Others simply felt torn and had no interest in talking politics.

“We’re all out of tears,” said Olga Sebekina, from St. Petersburg, Russia, who said her grandmother was Ukrainian and she still had family there. “Which side of my heart should break the most?” »

Heartbreak was in abundance throughout Bari during the war.

As volunteers at the collection center furiously cut tape and sealed care packages, a groan erupted from the back of the room, freezing everyone to the spot. Tatiana Shyrokykh, 58, sobbed as she stared at her phone and a video sent by a relative showing an attack on Chernihiv in northern Ukraine.

“My mother’s building,” she said, as she pointed to a gaping hole in a building, the fire smoldering in the streets and ambulances navigating through the rubble. The women wrapped their arms around her and comforted her, tears wetting their own eyes. A Ukrainian teenager in an Italia sweatshirt sat silently at a table, absent-mindedly taking duct tape from scissors.

After Ms Shyrokykh made a few calls home and caught her breath, she said her adult children were still living in Chernihiv, although she urged them to flee, and they had taken refuge underground.

Her daughter had asked her disabled mother to get into the tub and keep her head down, which she said was how she had survived when the attack happened and blew out the apartment window.

“All of Europe is afraid of Putin and does not want to do anything,” Ms Shyrokykh said, starting to cry again. “He goes against the whole world, like a God.”

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