08 January 2023

Ukrainian refugees in Budapest keep
alive the Christmas hope for peace

Ukrainians celebrate Christmas in Vörösmarty tér, the focal square in central Budapest, on Saturday night, 7 January (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Amber Jackson from the diocese communications team in the Diocese of Europe and Patrick Comerford from USPG are visiting Anglican chaplaincies in Hungary and Finland to see how they are supporting Ukrainian refugees with funding from the joint Ukraine appeal.

Patrick Comerford spent Ukrainian Christmas Day on 7 January with Ukrainian refugees in central Budapest

This is Christmas weekend in Ukraine, when Ukrainians should be at home celebrating Christmas together. In a Christmas tradition shared by Ukrainians of most traditions, Christmas Day still falls on 7 January, following the Julian Calendar still favoured by many churches in the Orthodox tradition.

The celebrations of Christmas in the Eastern Churches coincide closely with the celebration of Epiphany the day before in the Western Churches.

But Ukrainian refugees of all traditions came together last night in Saint Michael’s Church in the centre of Budapest to celebrate Christmas at the liturgy in the Greek Catholic parish, a Ukrainian church that follows Orthodox liturgy, customs and traditions but that is in full communion with the Pope and Rome.

The Churches in Ukraine have been deeply divided for centuries. But those historic divisions did not keep Ukrainian refugees apart in Budapest last night [7 January 2023] as they came together in their Christmas celebrations in Saint Michael’s Church in the inner city.

After the liturgy, a children’s choir sang traditional Ukrainian Christmas carols and songs before the congregation poured out in the streets of the Hungarian capital.

The singing throng continued to sing songs and carols with one voice as everyone processed along Váci utca, the principal tourist and shopping street, to Vörösmarty tér, the city’s focal square and the venue only a few weeks ago for Budapest’s main Christmas market.

As the singing continued beneath the statue of the Hungarian poet Mihály Vörösmarty, there were live streams to Kyev, the Ukrainian capital. Everyone I spoke to was cynical about the intentions of Russia’s temporary Christmas ceasefire called by Putin in response to a suggestion by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

Ukrainian children celebrate Christmas, 7 January 2023 in Budapest (Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Many of the children in the choir had taken part in singing Christmas songs and staged a nativity play for us the day before at Ukrainian Space, a day-care programme in Budapest, offers schooling in Ukrainian to about 20 children between the ages of 8 and 16.

The project has received grants from the Bishop’s Refugee Appeal in the Anglican Diocese in Europe and USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), through the efforts of the Revd Dr Frank Hegedus, the priest and chaplain at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church in Budapest.

Charlotte Hunter and I, and Rebecca Boardman of USPG and Amber Jackson of the Diocese in Europe are visiting Budapest and projects with Ukrainian refugees receiving support from USPG and the Diocese.

Earlier on Saturday, we met Father Szabolcs Sajgó, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, to hear how USPG has helped fund a church and community centre in Uzhgorod in Western Ukraine, just across the border with Hungary.

In the afternoon, we visited James Peter and the staff at Next Step, a refugee services agency providing food, meals and clothes for Ukrainian refugees in Hungary. Later in the day we visited Saint Columba’s, the Church of Scotland church in Budapest. There, the Revd Aaron Stevens and Chris Clark spoke of how the church-run food bank is feeding hundreds of Ukrainian refugees each week.

After we left the Ukrainian choirs singing their Christmas carols and songs in Vörösmarty tér, we joined the director of Ukrainian Space, Vladimir Pukis, and his wife Anna, a teacher in Ukrainian Space, for a Christmas dinner in a Hungarian restaurant in the centre of Budapest.

At the heart of the Christmas story is the good news of peace on earth. The Ukrainian refugees gathered for Christmas celebrations in the heart of Budapest last night showed unity in trying to keep that hope alive.

Ukrainians celebrate Christmas in Saint Michael’s Church on Váci utca, the principal tourist and shopping street in Budapest, on Saturday 7 January (Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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