LONDON—The leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in London said his services at the Ukrainian Cathedral were packed on Sunday with young men and women seeking a final prayer and blessing before they headed to Ukraine to defend the country against Putin’s invading forces.
Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski said the congregation was different to the average Sunday at the cathedral, which is just behind Bond Street in Central London. There were around 1,000 people at each of the services at 10am and noon, he said. The crowd was heavily skewed towards those of a fighting age. “The average age was around 37 or 38, and a large number of men,” he said.
Scores of congregants—up to 50—came to him at the end of the service to ask for prayers before they quit the safety on London and headed East across Europe to face down the Russian army. Nowakowski said that as a man of God he could hardly advocate for people to join a war where thousands of people have already died, but he agreed to give them a blessing.
“We have been inundated with people who wanted to do something to help and that includes people who want to go and fight.”
“If people were asking me for spiritual guidance and a blessing for their protection, I certainly wouldn’t refuse that, but I wouldn’t encourage them to do something against their personal conscience and what they believe.”
Nowakowski said he did not know exactly how many of his congregation were planning to travel to join the Ukrainian Territorial Defence force. The people he encountered were just those from a single day at the cathedral, and only those who identified themselves. “It’s very courageous of these, both men and women,” he told journalists inside the church. “There was at least one woman who came up and said she was returning, and that she’d been in the armed forces before and asked for our blessings.”
Iryna Terletska, chair of the Organisation of Ukrainian Women in the U.K., said people had also approached her NGO about traveling to join the war in Ukraine. “We have been inundated with people who wanted to do something to help and that includes people who want to go and fight,” she said.
The foreign secretary Liz Truss said over the weekend that she would support British citizens heading to join the war in Ukraine, but Terletska said London was not doing anything to facilitate people heading over there.
President Zelensky has called on potential foreign fighters to reach out to the Ukrainian embassies in their home countries.
Also among the congregation at one of Sunday’s services at the Ukrainian cathedral in London was Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, who held a private meeting with Nowakowski and other Ukrainian leaders. The bishop said they used the audience to press for further action on sanctions, military aid, improvements on visas for Ukrainians to come to the U.K. and refugee status.