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“A chaplain is a part of the soul in the great army mechanism.” The value and role of chaplains at the front

More than 738 military chaplains in the Armed Forces of Ukraine perform clerical duties. Seventy-eight officers have received a military rank and signed contracts with the Armed Forces of Ukraine as full-time military chaplains. 

Military chaplains are clergy members who provide for the religious needs of soldiers in the army. Chaplains monitor soldiers’ morale, conduct worship services, tune up soldiers before battle, and support civilian families of military personnel.

In Ukraine, most of them are representatives of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. There are also Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church chaplains, Protestant pastors, Muslim imams, Rabbis, etc.

How is chaplaincy organised in Ukraine?

On July 1, 2022, the Law “On the Military Chaplaincy Service”, adopted by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, came into force. The Military Chaplaincy Service is a separate structure within the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the National Guard of Ukraine, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, and other military formations. 

Military chaplains are obliged to organise measures to meet the spiritual and religious needs of soldiers and their families and to respect the right to freedom of worldview and religion. 

Military priests are not involved in duties, patrols, internal investigations, or other actions incompatible with their official duties and status as clergymen. It is also prohibited to issue weapons and ammunition to chaplains. 

Chaplains may conduct worship services, religious rites, and other activities with the military only with the permission of the commander of the military unit. It is mandatory to have a chaplain in all units. However, chaplains told us there is currently a shortage of people with the relevant knowledge.

Father Yaroslav Volkovytskyi, chaplain of the 81st Separate Airmobile Brigade

Yaroslav Volkovytskyi is from Kostiantynivka, the Donetsk region in the east of Ukraine, which is currently just 20 kilometres from the frontline. There, he was a priest of the Holy Presentation Church of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. 

Photo from the personal archive.

When Russia’s full-scale invasion began, Yaroslav began volunteering in various units as a priest, as he could not yet be drafted (the law on military chaplains came into force on July 1, 2022 — ed.) In February 2023, he signed a contract with the Armed Forces and became a chaplain of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. 

“I had many friends in the military before the full-scale invasion. After February 24, I periodically visited the military enlistment office. I wanted to be close to the guys [soldiers],” says Yaroslav Volkovytskyi.

Father Yaroslav helps military personnel of all religions. The chaplain’s duties include moral and psychological support, pastoral care (spiritual guidance — ed.), and meeting spiritual or religious needs. 

“Military people need a trustworthy person to tell about their experiences. A chaplain is not only a priest. He is a brother-in-arms, a father, a person to whom you can talk. It is a neutrality that meets the needs of all religions. If the military personnel profess Orthodox Christianity, we provide them with icons and crosses (symbols of the Orthodox Christianity — ed.). If they are Muslim, we provide them with mats for namaz (daily prayer of Muslims — ed.) and the Koran (the central religious text of Islam — ed.),” the man says. 

The soldiers know that any conversation with a chaplain is equivalent to a confession, says Father Yaroslav. It lets them talk about things their relatives or brothers-in-arms sometimes do not understand. 

Photo from the personal archive.

In addition to moral and spiritual support, chaplains organise celebrations of religious holidays if circumstances allow. Father Yaroslav also teaches the soldiers the process of baptism (a sacrament in Christian churches that symbolises spiritual birth — ed.) so that each of them can baptise a fellow soldier if he wishes.  

“If you are in a trench with your brother-in-arms and he decides to be baptised, you should do the following: pour water on his head and say ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ Then the priest will perform the sacrament of baptism,” the chaplain taught the servicemen. 

Father Yaroslav Volkovytskyi recalls one of his visits to a brigade. He was talking to the soldiers and asked them whether they needed crosses and other religious symbols. One of the soldiers, who claimed to be an atheist, asked for that.

“Later, I came to them again and asked about the guy I gave the cross to. They told me that the cross had broken, and the soldier refused to go to the position. His brothers-in-arms had to repair it. Then, I gave him a metal cross and baptised him,” the chaplain told us.

Photo from the personal archive.

Father Yaroslav Volkovytskyi says that his biggest motivator is the soldiers’ smiles. 

“Sometimes, I can feel depressed, but when I come there [to the soldiers], it gets better. They are always happy to see me. The joy in their eyes is the most inspiring thing,” says Yaroslav Volkovytskyi. 

David Milman, Jewish Rabbi of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

David Milman was born in Kamianske, the Dnipropetrovsk region, and has lived in the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, for the past 40 years. He has been a civilian all his life: a rabbi (spiritual leader of the Jewish community — ed.), a teacher of the Torah (Jewish religious book — ed.), and an assistant to the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, Moshe Reuven Azman. 

Photo from the personal archive.

“Then the [full-scale] invasion happened. My students, pilgrims, friends, and acquaintances went to defend the country. It turned out that I could solve most of their problems just by being in the army. I wanted to help the soldiers of the Jewish faith,” says David Milman.  

On April 20, 2023, he was appointed a clergyman in the Armed Forces. He is currently the first and only rabbi cooperating with the Armed Forces.  At least a thousand Jews are fighting in the Ukrainian army, including Israelis who serve in international brigades. 

“When I come to the frontline, I communicate not only with Jews but with everyone who needs it. Sometimes, people do not even need help. Sometimes, they just need someone who will listen and give advice. People there [at the front] are between life and death. They see the world differently. War changes not people, but their perception of life,” says the rabbi. 

Milman often holds religious holidays. For instance, he lights Hanukkah candles. He also participates in burial ceremonies for members of the Jewish community. 

“What motivates me the most is the feeling that they need me. Not only as a person from whom one can ask for help. Soldiers need spirituality. The attitude to faith and God changes in those fighting and those waiting for them at home. One of the main tasks of a chaplain is to support them,” explains Rabbi David Milman.

Muhammad Ali, staff chaplain in the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Hajali Muhammad Ali spent most of his life in Kharkiv: he was born here and majored in software engineering at the local university. His father is Syrian, so he also visited Syria a lot and finished school there. 

Photo from the personal archive.

Before 2022, the man’s life consisted of two parts: civilian, where he worked as a software engineer, and military, where he volunteered as a chaplain on the frontline in the East of Ukraine after joining the Military Chaplaincy of Ukraine in 2018.

“I have had the opportunity to live among different cultures and nationalities since childhood. It influenced my interfaith vision of the world. It helps me to work as a chaplain because we are spiritual mentors for everyone,” says Muhammad Ali. 

After February 24, 2022, he stayed on as a chaplain, supporting the soldiers, particularly during the battles for Kharkiv (from February 24, 2022 to September 11, 2022 — ed.).

At the end of 2023, Muhammad Ali signed a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine and became a chaplain at the 71st Mobile Military Hospital in Kyiv. He is the only Muslim chaplain in the medical forces. 

“I mostly work with the injured, not only Muslims but representatives of different faiths. A chaplain is not just a priest who performs religious rites. He is a person who can talk to the military on various human topics. This is someone who can be there for them and find out what they really need at the right time,” says Muhammad Ali.  

Photo from the personal archive.

The chaplain tries to structure his work so that it does not consist only of formalities (holding religious holidays, communicating only at certain times — ed.). Muhammad Ali helps the brigade commanders to work with the personnel when there are communication difficulties. In addition, the chaplain interacts with the military’s relatives when they have questions. 

“It is much better to work in an informal setting. I go with the guys to evacuate people and talk about everyday things. Pastoral care involves working on different areas of the soldiers’ lives: family, professional, etc.,” the man says. 

Muhammad Ali represents Islam, so he often takes care of the religious rights of Muslim soldiers. He takes care of their food, as they are allowed to eat only special meat, and asks for a dedicated time for them to pray. 

“The army is a big metal machine that can be cruel sometimes. Chaplain is a part of the soul in this mechanism, a part of humanity and connection with God, which the army sorely lacks,” says Muhammad Ali. 

The man calls the chaplaincy service a small miracle that works without bureaucracy and does not require performance measurement. He sees the value and importance of his work in the military’s morale.

“Chaplaincy is an area where there are no evaluation criteria. There is no need for a reporting paper for every event. I see the result of my work in the incredible and happy eyes of the boys and girls I work with. Our visits give the military an opportunity to talk openly about everything with trust and learn something new. Some may see Muslim imams for the first time and want to learn about another culture. There is an opportunity to open up and learn something new. That is why I do this,” says chaplain Muhammad Ali.

The clergymen say that there are not enough chaplains for all the brigades. Officially, each brigade and battalion should have their own priests who are constantly in touch, physically or by phone. However, there are often not enough people, so many chaplains work with several brigades. Chaplains are an essential part of the military.

Written by Kateryna Vovk
Translated by Taisiia Blinova