The Red Cross says it is ‘deeply alarmed’ by conditions in Mariupol, as Russia continues to bombard.
LVIV, Ukraine — On the eve of the most important Christian religious festival of the year, Ukrainians clung to centuries-old Easter traditions in the shadow of a war that has brought devastation and sorrow to much of the country.
At the Greek Catholic Church of the Transfiguration in Lviv’s historic city center, a line of churchgoers stood next to wicker baskets they had brought, covered with embroidered cloths and filled with sausages, smoked hams, Easter breads, butter and cheeses to be blessed by the priest.
It was a ritual celebrated throughout Ukraine, in Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic churches, which follow the Julian calender and will celebrate Easter this year on Sunday.
The food was destined to be eaten in elaborate Easter breakfasts after Mass on Sunday.
Other residents carried Easter baskets through the cobblestone streets on their way to churches of every denomination that line the central market district, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As air raid sirens sounded, cafes closed their doors and a group of street musicians took a break from the folk music they were playing on traditional Ukrainian stringed instruments.
At a nearby intersection, some residents had laid bouquets of flowers at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary, next to piles of white sandbags intended to protect the statue from bombings. Since the start of the war, churches have shrouded religious statues in protective wrapping and have boarded up stained glass windows.
Russia, which is also predominantly Eastern Orthodox, rejected calls this week by Ukraine and the United Nations for an Easter cease-fire.
Though most Ukrainians and Russians are Orthodox Christians, long-simmering tensions between church leaders in the two nations have deepened in recent years. In 2019, the church in Ukraine, which had been subordinate to Moscow since 1686, was granted its independence.
This week Russian airstrikes killed at least seven people in Lviv, but the city has been spared most of the fighting raging in the east of the country for the past two months. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have sought refuge here or have passed through on the way to Poland and other countries.
At Lviv’s central train station, volunteers handed out Easter chocolates to displaced children arriving from other cities. One family who received the treats had walked for five days with their four children from the devastated southern port of Mariupol on their way to the relative safety of western Ukraine.
Many Ukrainians said they were sticking to their traditions in the face of a pervasive sadness and fear the war had brought.
“This year there’s not so much happiness in people’s faces and eyes,” said Myroslava Zakharkiv, a college English instructor. “Many people are grieving, many men are gone to the front.”
Ms. Zakharkiv, 48, said that she had done a traditional Easter cleaning of her home in a village near Lviv. She also had baked Easter bread and prepared foods to put in a basket to be blessed at the church.
“We hope there will be no bombs and no alarms but no one knows what will happen so we are a bit afraid,” she said.
For many of the displaced, the war has also meant separation from their families.
Anna Mukoida, 22, said this was the first Easter she would spend away from her family, who stayed in Bila Tserkva, a town 50 miles south of the capital, Kyiv, while she fled to the southwestern city of Chernivtsi.
Despite the danger and uncertainty, many Ukrainians were determined to hold on to tradition.
“Easter in the time of the war is like the sun on a rainy day,” said Ms. Mukoida. “It is very important now to have such days just to feel alive and remember that there was life before the war.”
Neonila Vodolska, 22, was also displaced. She was staying in the western city of Kalush, far from her family in Kyiv. To ease the pain of separation from her family, she said she bought a white shirt with traditional dark red embroidery to wear on Easter Day.
“Now I fully understand the importance of saving such traditions,” Ms. Vodolska said. “Doing something normal, celebrating something that reminds me of the good times, of my childhood, brings me hope.”
In most parts of the country, curfews remained in place over Saturday night, when many Christians traditionally hold vigils and celebrate a midnight Mass in memory of those who waited on Holy Saturday by Christ’s tomb. Instead many people planned to watch the Mass on television.
“We must understand that the gathering of civilians at a predetermined time of all-night service can be a target for missiles, aircraft and artillery,” the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said in a statement on Saturday morning.
In Lviv, the authorities initially announced the curfew would be lifted but then reimposed it after receiving intelligence that pro-Russia saboteurs could be planning attacks in the city.
Earlier in the week, the head of Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the Metropolitan Epifaniy, asked clergy to forgo nighttime Easter services in areas of the country affected by fighting, fearing Russian bombardments.
“It is not hard to believe this will really happen, because the enemy is trying to completely destroy us,” he said in a televised speech.