(RNS) — Some Orthodox Christians in Ukraine will celebrate Christmas on Sunday (Jan. 7), but instead of Christmas bells, they will hear air raid sirens. The recent onslaught of missiles striking across the country reminded the world of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy of terror and destruction. Hopefully, the United States and others will stand with Ukraine against Russian aggression in 2024 and beyond.

Religion has played a central role in the complex dynamics between Russia and Ukraine over centuries. After Ukraine’s independence, Putin manipulated Orthodox Christianity, trying to tractor-beam Ukraine into Russia’s sphere. When that failed, he sent in the tanks to destroy what he could not take — Ukrainian nationhood.

In response, Ukraine fought back physically and spiritually, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signing a law in July changing the official Christmas holiday from Jan. 7 to Dec. 25 to match the general practice of Western Europe. Yet, considering the thousands of Orthodox parishes and the power of tradition, this Sunday will still hold special significance for many Ukrainian faithful.

If they venture out to their parishes, they must be careful. The latest Russian aerial assault targeted major civilian areas with drones and bombs. Fear of another attack will certainly silence churches on Sunday, forcing parishioners to think twice about risking their lives before attending services. Ukrainians know sacred sites have not been off-limits. In fact, they’ve often been targeted.

UNESCO, the United Nations agency charged with preserving cultural heritage, has verified damage to 125 sacred sites. A report by the Ukrainian Institute for Religious Freedom found that “as a result of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, at least 494 religious buildings, theological institutions, and sacred places were wholly destroyed, damaged, or looted by the Russian military.” The number of religious sites impacted by Russian aggression has more than doubled since July 2022.

Ukrainian religious leaders understand what’s at stake. During a visit to Washington, D.C., late last year, evangelical pastor Ivan Rusyn described this dynamic, saying: “This war is not about our land. This war is about the very existence of our freedom, identity, values and culture.” He shared about the destruction of his seminary and the murder of priests by Russian occupation forces in his hometown of Bucha. Speaking at the United States Institute of Peace, he said the choice is obvious, “fight or die.”

Russia’s attack on Ukraine constitutes war crimes. Proof of Russia’s devastation is accumulating, mirroring the debris surrounding the demolished churches, sacred sites and civilian areas. Steadfast American and European support is crucial to ensure Ukraine survives.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been one of Ukraine’s most steadfast supporters. Before Congress adjourned last year, he spoke about how “the people of Ukraine have defied the world’s expectations. They’ve ground down the world’s second most powerful military, and they’ve confounded Putin’s aggressive, imperialist aspirations.” He noted how American aid has created positive “ripple effects,” spurring European nations to provide more assistance. But continued U.S. support is crucial. McConnell correctly said, “Our Ukrainian friends’ cause is just.” 

We must be clear that Putin is no friend to religious freedom at home or abroad. The Trump administration added Russia to its watch list in 2020 for religious persecution, and the Biden administration further designated Russia in 2021 and 2022. In contrast, in Ukraine, different expressions of Orthodoxy live side by side with Catholicism, Protestantism, evangelicalism, Islam and Judaism. While no country is perfect, stories of Ukraine closing Russian Orthodox churches or promoting antisemitism are fake news. Based on my 20 years of diplomatic work, Ukraine is an oasis of religious freedom among former Soviet republics, especially compared with Russia. 

During this holy season, we cannot abandon Ukraine to Russian destruction. Putin’s indiscriminate attacks are the epitome of what evil looks like. Evangelical pastor Rusyn, during his time in Washington, said, “We hope that the people of the United States who love freedom, justice and peace will not leave us.” Rusyn concluded, “Please hear our cry.” 

(Knox Thames served as a State Department special envoy role during the Obama and Trump administrations, focusing on religious minorities in the Middle East and South/Central Asia. He is currently a senior fellow at Pepperdine University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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