In bombed-out Donbass, Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas underground
Ukraine and Russia, which have been at war since February 2022, celebrated Orthodox Christmas on Saturday. In the Chassiv Yard near the front, residents gathered in the basement rather than the church at the end of the street for fear of being fired upon. Out of the congregation of a hundred people who fled the city, only nine remained faithful.
Artillery fire is heard, the sound of airplanes is heard. But residents of Chassiv Iar in eastern Ukraine held an Orthodox Christmas service in a basement, saying they saw the symbol of Christ as a call to courage.
Almost all the choir’s worshipers and singers have fled the city to safer areas, and only nine people attend the service in the basement of the building, which was partially destroyed after the explosion in November.
“Christ was born in a cave. You and I are in the same cave,” Reverend Oleg Kruchi tells the group, pointing to the basement, where electric wires and pipes are illuminated by light bulbs.
“It probably has a special meaning: don’t get discouraged, don’t give up…” he continues.
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Chassiv Iar is 10 kilometers west of Bakhmut, the front’s hot spot, and has been under constant bombardment for weeks.
During the first nine months of the war, the city’s Orthodox Christians worshiped in a white brick church with golden domes, although the building had no underground shelter.
But two weeks ago, a rocket landed in the church yard and broke the windows.
“One of our parishioners lives in this house, and now that his apartment is partially destroyed, he lives in the basement and invited us,” said Olga Krouchinina, the priest’s wife.
Christmas party near artillery fire
Parishioners did their best to light up the space, placing a small Christmas tree on top of a wooden mantelpiece, hanging white and red tapestries and twisting the branches into a tube like a wreath.
Olga Kruchinina says she is proud of the effort, even as she pulled out her phone to show the entrance to the ornately decorated church last year.
“Everything is going well for us,” he says. “When I think about the soldiers I know, their situation is worse.”
During the two hours of the service, worshipers do their best to ignore the war, jumping only once due to artillery fire.
They would line up to confess and receive communion, lighting candles and the smell of incense filling the room.
The once 15-member choir now has just one member: 62-year-old Zinaida Artioukhina, who leads a group of psalms that often turn into solos. “Usually I sing the alto piece, so it was hard to handle,” he said.
“It’s unusual here. Today is the first time I go to the basement,” he continues. “Thank God we came together.”
Run like Jesus
In his own words, priest Oleg Kruchy compared the fate of those who fled Chassiv Iar to the fate of Jesus, whose family fled to Egypt to escape King Herod.
“Today, many of our parishioners also fled. But they are all praying with us wherever they are today, wherever the Lord saved them from bombs and shells,” he says.
“And we hope that our parishioners will return to their Chassiv Iar, just as the Holy Family returned to their Jerusalem,” adds the priest.
In the meantime, the church hopes to keep its basement open to worshipers. Nina Popova, 77, walks three kilometers every day to get there and sing hymns – even if the temperature is well below zero this Saturday.
“We will serve as long as we have the opportunity,” assures the priest’s wife, Olga Kroutchinina.