The few journalists who still report from eastern Ukraine invariably describe it as an invisible catastrophe. It’s an apt oxymoron. First, a region the size of Connecticut, right in the middle of Europe, was turned into an apocalyptic wasteland where 3 million civilians remain cut-off from basic necessities. Then, it was promptly forgotten.
Pope Francis decided to change matters. On April 3, the pontiff issued a rare and far-ranging call, earmarking money collected by European churches during the April 24 Sunday services for humanitarian aid for victims of a brutal and ongoing conflict. Yet, while the attention is direly needed, it’s not enough. Catholics in North America — really all Americans — must also be called upon to help.
Two years ago this month, war broke out between Kiev and Russian-backed rebels in the Donbass mining region of eastern Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, Donbass’ chief export went from coal to war crimes. Ukraine’s industrial heartland was transformed into a developing nation.
The conditions are unfathomable. In the 21st century, there are outbreaks of tuberculosis and HIV because Kiev battalions blocked medical supplies from reaching the rebel-held areas while the rebels expelled Doctors Without Borders on charges of being spies. In the middle of Europe, elementary schools now have classes on recognizing explosives. Neither the rebels nor Kiev forces bothered marking minefields, and children keep getting blown apart. Indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas destroyed infrastructure from power plants to water treatment facilities, leaving hundreds of thousands without drinkable water and electricity. The World Food Program just added Ukraine — once the breadbasket of Europe — to its list of countries in desperate need of food. Ukraine is the only European nation on a list dominated by the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
Highly conservative United Nations estimates place the war’s toll at more than 10,000 casualties; 2 million refugees and internally-displaced persons; and of 3 million people who remain in the conflict area, nearly half are considered “highly vulnerable and in need of assistance.” Many are elderly or the poor who have no means to flee.
Ordinarily, the eyes of the West would be riveted on Ukraine, just as they were on the atrocities of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But shortly after the war began, a fog of propaganda descended on Donbass, creating a chaos that became impenetrable for the global media.
Kiev officially designated the conflict an “anti-terrorist operation,” or ATO, and Donbass as the ATO zone. Moscow propaganda paints all Kiev supporters as “neo-Nazis.” The terms effectively dehumanized the 3 million civilians trapped in the conflict zone: Neither terrorists nor neo-Nazis deserve mercy.
Accusations and counter-accusations swirling around Ukraine transformed it from a slaughter yard into a question of “spheres of influence” between Russia and NATO or a “standoff” between Kiev and Moscow. The rare headlines out of Ukraine recently focus on which side is violating the latest cease-fire attempt, or the political squabbles in Kiev — not the civilians for whom abduction, torture, landmines, starvation, and murder are now a part of life. It is as if Massachusetts and New York engaged in a scorched-earth war, and no one bothers to mention the people of Connecticut caught in-between.
Pope Francis addressed the situation in typical Jesuit fashion — he quickly slashed through the polemics of spheres and standoffs, Nazis and terrorists, and called on the faithful to aid the victims.
Except he called on the wrong continent.
The papal collection for Ukraine extends to churches in Europe, but not North America. Under normal circumstances this would make sense, since Europeans have a geographic interest in aiding their neighbors. The problem today is that Catholic strongholds like Italy, France, and Austria are already strained to the breaking point because of the Syrian migrant crisis. It’s hard to expect Western Europeans to focus on suffering in Ukraine when they are consumed by the biggest influx of humanity since World War II unfolding in their own cities.
The parishes best poised to contribute to the Vatican’s appeal are on this side of the Atlantic. American bishops have a unique opportunity to stand in solidarity with Europe. A separate US collection for Ukraine would allow Boston, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to join Pope Francis’ historic mission centered on that sacred tenet of both religion and American democracy — protecting the innocent. It would aid millions who are neither terrorists nor neo-Nazis, but civilians whose only sin was the misfortune of living in what has become Ukraine’s misery.
Lev Golinkin is the author of “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.”