“Never Undervalue the Benefit of Bringing
Two Strangers Together”

Catholic News Service has just posted this report by Mariana Karapinka on Msgr. John Kozar’s recent visit to Ukraine.

Catholic News Service has just posted this report by Mariana Karapinka on Msgr. John Kozar’s recent visit to Ukraine:

It’s not often that Jewish, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox Ukrainians from different ethnic backgrounds get together in Ukraine.

But when 37 young adults joined an immersion program, The Ark, for a week in mid-July to learn about one another’s culture, religion and history, they came away with greater understanding of respect for one another.

At one point when pork was served for dinner and Jewish participants could not partake, Muslim students shared their chicken dishes with them.

Seminar participant Alim Umerodzha, a Crimean Tatar activist and a Muslim, said diversity should be perceived as richness and not a reason for division.

“In every lecture and every conversation, I unexpectedly discover something that we have in common,” he said.

Such understanding is gratifying to Msgr. John Kozar, head of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which supports the program hosted by the Eastern Catholic Studite monastery in Univ and is sponsored by the Ukrainian Catholic University, the Federation of Polish Organizations in Ukraine, the Polish Consulate in Lviv, the Tkuma Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies and the nongovernmental organization Crimea SOS.

Msgr. Kozar visited the seminar during a pastoral visit to Ukraine, talking with participants and witnessing the exchange of ideas. The stop was among several he made in the country.

“Never undervalue the benefit of bringing two strangers or even two enemies together. Because the first thing that happens, they realize that they are not that much different and want the same things,” he told Catholic News Service.

“This program is not typical for CNEWA,” he added. “We usually accompany Eastern Catholic Churches” activities, help with some renovation and educational programs.”

Msgr. Kozar’s trip included visits with chaplains, Caritas Ukraine, communities displaced by the violence in eastern Ukraine, orphanages, seminaries and the village of Zarvanytsia, one of the country’s most revered pilgrimage sites.

The interfaith seminar is one of several activities confronting religious persecution and promoting interreligious tolerance in Ukraine. CNEWA and its Ukrainian partners received a $175,000 grant from the Canadian government’s Office of Religious Freedom for the program, which includes student exchanges among the regions, summer schools, panel discussions, lectures and media publications.

Myroslav Marynovych, who helped establish the seminar in 2006 as a summer school for young Ukrainians, including those who are Jewish and of Polish descent, said the seminar’s goal is to help students not only understand the past but understand and feel the pain rooted in ethnic and religious misunderstanding.

In 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, seminar planners decided to accept Crimean Tatars, who are Muslim.

The seminar also allows participants to reflect on the challenges posed by the ongoing clashes between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Seminar organizers specifically chose the Studite monastery to host the program. During World War II the monastery, with the help and encouragement of the Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, hid and saved more than 100 Jewish children from the Nazis.

Igor Shchupak, director of Tkuma Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust, said the monastery is a holy place not only for Ukrainian Catholics but also for Jews and Poles.

Participant Christina Shandrak, a Roman Catholic of Polish descent living in Lviv, admitted “there were many issues in the past among Poles and Ukrainians.”

“Some of them are still not resolved,” she said. “I feel personally that I have issues that I need to talk through with Ukrainian colleagues, understand and maybe to forgive.”

Vlada Haidenko, a Jewish student from Kryvyi Rih, was making her first trip to Western Ukraine to participate in The Ark program. She said she was eager to deepen her knowledge of the history and culture of the region.

“I learn a lot from other participants but also I’m very glad to share with others about our culture,” she said.

The participants learned about Kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, and participated in Shabat celebrations.In 2014, the seminar met during Ramadan, and many students were able to learn about Muslim fasting and other traditions.

Kiril Alfeyev, another Jewish student from the same town, said staying at the Studite monastery and seeing its many crosses, Christian icons, and statues seemed a bit strange at first, but that he became accustomed to the symbols of Christianity.

“It’s interesting to talk to other people, what their values, goals, and priorities are. We all live in one country and need to understand each other better,” he said.

For Mykola Asenishvili, an Orthodox Christian enrolled at Donetsk University, the program allows participants the chance to “pay attention to details and to learn more about the other.”

It’s that search for unity that is important to Shandrak, the young Pole from Lviv. “Differences are interesting but finding the common ‘spine or rod’ is more important,” she said.

“Being united, we will be able to build new country and write a new history,” participant Vlada Haidenko agreed. “No one would be able to split us.”

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