Ukraine’s Christian Army – “There are no atheists under fire”
“The war was a gift to the Kyiv Patriarchy, not a threat” – says Vitaly ‘Partizan’, one of the unit’s commanders – “Many towns moved from Moscow to Kyiv patriarchy.” As to why, Vitaly’s face remains steadfast: “The Moscow Patriarchy isn’t Christian, but Satanist- they don’t like people, they don’t love Jesus.”
St. Maria Battalion in Mariupol, Eastern Ukraine, is the first Christian Volunteer unit. It is part of the Ukraine’s military hierarchy, where the war is led mostly by volunteers- from foreign nationals to units with far-right ideologies.
The quiet St. Maria Battalion barracks are situation along the Azov Sea coastline, in what was once a tourist destination. As the sentry opens the gates to the compound, the shelling 15 kilometres away from Mariupol, the strategic Ukrainian bastion 60 kilometres from Russia, continues.
Whether the St. Maria battalion can be seen extremist, Vitaly shrugs: “You can say all religious views have an extremist point of view.” The brutal rise of Islamic State in recent years has shaken the world. “They fight for the right religious principles, but no good in what they want – the idea of an Islamic State is wrong” – says Vitaly – “Ideal state for me, or one of them, is a democratic state with strong organizations – religious and social.”
The battalion was formed in summer 2014, following the restructuring of Shakhtorsk Battalion. Majority of the 150 strong unit have seen active combat in Illovaysk and Mariupol in Donbass region, East Ukraine.
The unit proudly displays religious symbols in their PR campaign and on equipment. The reoccurring image is one of crusades. “It was the best thing in European history,” says Vitaly, “Crusaders sold all they have, bought weapons and went to war for a cause.”
The unit functions as a self-contained community, strong in religious brotherhood. On Sunday mornings, the battalion organises Mass for their soldiers and surrounding community. Over a dozen Mariupol citizens attend the mass, from the very young to the pensioners. “We are under Ukrainian Police Department, the church does not support us, only volunteers and donations,” says Vitaly.
“Some units have nationalist ideologies,” says Vitaly in subtle reference to the far-right ‘Azov’ Battalion also stationed in Mariupol, “our ideology is one of Christian Orthodox.”
The St. Mary Battalion has a fighting Chaplain and Priest, named Vladimir and Maxim respectively. Besides running the Sunday Mass, they bless their fighters before combat. “We hope God protects us; belief in God gives us confidence when fighting” – says Vitaly.
“We can only win this conflict if we destroy Moscow and Russia,” says Vitaly. With a recent recruitment drive in Kyiv, this unit is set to become stronger as their support and fighting force grows.