Ukrainian bishops welcomed efforts to restart classes for a new school year and offered church basements as emergency air raid shelters for children.
“The Ukrainian authorities know education is vital for the country’s future, so everything is being done to get youngsters back to school, even while our soldiers are fighting at the front,” Auxiliary Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia told Catholic News Service Sept. 1.
“Although the war drags on, there are basic things we must provide them with, including the possibility of being educated. Children can best help Ukraine and their families by studying for their homeland’s future.”
Classes restarted across Ukraine Sept. 1 after months of disruption caused by Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, amid warnings that children needed protection against shells and bombs.
Bishop Sobilo said schools unable to provide quick access to air raid shelters when sirens sounded had arranged for pupils to study virtually from home.
He added that teaching programs had been adjusted to ease the anxiety of children with fathers serving in the war, as well to “combat Moscow’s propaganda” by removing Russian writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Pushkin from compulsory reading lists.
“For centuries, Russia has fostered the view that its culture is the most important,” the bishop told CNS.
“The new school curriculum takes account of this and ensures children will grasp the meaning of racism, collaboration and Russian domination. These terms have all appeared for the first time in our teaching programs, so children will understand how they were brought to Ukraine by Russian soldiers.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Catholic Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych also praised teachers and administrators for bringing back “face-to-face education” and said he hoped schooling would be assured for the 4.8 million children, more than half Ukraine’s total, estimated by UNICEF to be displaced within the country or in exile abroad.
He added that Ukraine’s Education Ministry had asked churches and convents to make cellars available as “certified bomb shelters” for schoolchildren.
“We are very happy to do this, and I’ve invited school principals to see what we have, so they can think how best to equip these basements for children to study in safety,” the archbishop said in an Aug. 29 statement.
“Social protection of the family is a joint matter for both church and state. In war conditions, I think the need and prospect of a pro-family policy becomes even more acute.”
The schools reopened as inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited Ukraine’s Russian-occupied nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia, and as Ukrainian forces claimed to have broken through Russian lines in a bid to recapture the southern port of Kherson.
Bishop Sobilo said he had taken refuge in a church basement with his congregation during a Russian bombing raid in July, adding that many older church buildings with large cellars were now listed as municipal shelters.
He said invading forces routinely targeted and destroyed educational institutions, with assistance from local informers, on the pretext that Ukrainian soldiers hid inside them.
“Besides preventing education, they are targeting all forms of infrastructure important to Ukraine, to destabilize daily life,” Bishop Sobilo said.
“A great campaign is underway to destroy all objects of social and cultural importance and to make it uncomfortable for local people and families to stay. Once they’re forced to flee, the towns are left defenseless.”
In a pastoral letter scheduled to be read in churches Sept. 4, bishops said education was “necessary and essential” to a “fulfilled life under any circumstances.”
Meanwhile, the Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia Diocese warned on a website message that young people faced a “permanent sadness” brought on by “horrors of war, death, suffering and injustice,” and it said Sept. 1-7 would be a “week of education” to strengthen their sacramental life and “reveal the Catholic vision of happiness.”
In an Aug. 26 interview with the international charity Aid to the Church in Need, the diocese’s ordinary, Bishop Pavlo Honcharuk, said at least 20 schools and numerous kindergartens had been destroyed by missiles in Kharkiv, a city of 1.7 million close to the front line.
He added that Catholic clergy had attempted to stay in touch, via social media, with parishioners in occupied territories of eastern Ukraine, but said children had been separated from their parents in Russian-run “filtration camps.”
“There are many such tragic, very painful stories, and it’s not clear how priests can help — if the situation worsens, there will probably be no full-time education,” Bishop Honcharuk said.
“If anyone is still stuck in the fantasy that Russia only bombs military facilities, they are not just mistaken, but badly deluded. Hospitals, businesses, schools, universities, kindergartens and homes have all been destroyed.”
Bishop Sobilo said there was no possibility of Catholic catechism classes in Russian-occupied areas, where children were now being “formed in an anti-Catholic, anti-Ukrainian spirit with Orthodox Church assistance.”
“As in Luhansk after 2014, they will certainly try over time to eliminate the Catholic Church completely,” the bishop told CNS.
“The Russians prepared earlier for dealing with schools under their occupation, meeting teachers who came over to their side and forcing others to teach Russian-language programs and ensure Ukrainian children were educated in a decidedly pro-Russian way,” he said.