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Italian City Tied to Russia by a Revered Saint Feels the Sting of War in Ukraine

BARI, Italy — As the Orthodox chants in Russian and the Ukrainian bishop’s voice echoed in the ancient crypt, the faithful lowered their scarf-wrapped heads to the marble floor, held candles over their Cyrillic prayer books or wept under low stone arches.

All had come to pray at the tomb of St. Nicholas, revered by Orthodox Christians throughout the former Soviet bloc, in the basilica named for him in the port city of Bari, on Italy’s southern coast. Though more than 1,000 miles from the conflict in Ukraine, and united in their veneration for the saint, the congregation of mostly women in long winter coats made for a strangely out-of-place diorama of all that binds and that is tearing apart their ancestral homelands.

A woman wearing the yellow and blue colors of Ukraine’s flag said she asked the saint for a miracle: to stop Russia’s invasion of her home country. A Belarusian woman nearby defended the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. So did the Serbian monk assisting the bishop in the prayers. The Russian faithful by the choir refused to assign blame for the war.

“It’s a sin what Putin is doing,” said Lali Bubashvili, 50, a woman from Georgia, a former Soviet republic, who sat on a back pew, recalling Russia’s invasion there. “Years ago we suffered the war. We know it’s a barbarous thing.”

The relics believed to be of St. Nicholas were brought from present-day Turkey by sailors 1,000 years ago, and his bones have been entombed in Bari ever since. Though the basilica that houses them is Roman Catholic, once a week it invites the Orthodox faithful to hold their own service using the crypt.

The presence of the relics has long made Bari an unusual linchpin in relations between Italy and Russia and between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.

In 2007, Mr. Putin himself came to Bari and knelt in front of St. Nicholas’s tomb, just as the faithful did during the prayer for peace. In 2009, Italy returned ownership to Russia of an Orthodox church named after St. Nicholas to fortify ties with Moscow.

Years earlier, Mr. Putin donated a statue of the saint that stands in the square in front of the basilica, along with a signed plaque honoring “friendship and cooperation” that is dedicated to “the citizens of Bari.”

But Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has now made the ancient crypt, and the city around it, an unexpected satellite for the pain and bitterness of the conflict. On the streets of Bari, the war has caused tensions between Ukrainian and Russian residents and headaches for local politicians.

Local people recently petitioned for the removal of the plaque bearing Mr. Putin’s dedication. Though Bari’s mayor, Antonio Decaro, brought yellow and blue flowers last month to the foot of the statue of St. Nicholas in sympathy with Ukraine, he has opposed removing the dedication, saying that to do so would cancel a piece of history.

“They won’t take the Putin sign down,” said Inna Honcharenko, 38, from Vinnytsia near Kyiv, as she directed volunteers collecting donations for Ukraine in another part of town. “There’s too much the hand of Russia here.”

She said the war had exposed ugly tensions among Eastern European neighbors in the city. Russians had walked by the collection center and said the Ukrainian flag hanging out front was good only for cleaning their shoes. She said that vandals had smashed its window and that some Russian friends in Bari had stopped talking to her.

But the outpouring of help from Italians bringing pasta, rice, diapers, baby food, canned beans and much else encouraged her. “From Italy we are helping our boys who are fighting for our people,” she said by a poster of Mr. Putin that read “Killer” with a bloody handprint on his face.

Nearby, at the Russian Orthodox church with an emerald onion dome, a woman behind the closed gates explained that the church, despite its usual operating hours, was now closed to visitors. “This is Russian Federation territory,” she said.

The church’s priest, Viacheslav Bachin, declined to respond when asked about the war. He has referred to the position of Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has often been aligned with Mr. Putin and who has shifted from avoiding casting blame for the war in Ukraine to blaming the West.

In 2017, as a gesture in improving relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, Pope Francis lent Patriarch Kirill some of the relics of St. Nicholas, which left the church for the first time in about 1,000 years. On the day the lent relic — believed to be the left rib closest to the heart of St. Nicholas — arrived in Moscow, Mr. Putin kissed the glass case containing it.

Last week in the basilica’s crypt, Father Bachin swung incense around the tomb, hung with lanterns and icons, and Bishop Gedeon, a prominent Orthodox bishop from Kyiv whose given name is Yuriy Kharon, led the prayer. It seemed to send a message of reconciliation. But the bishop is a member of the Russian Patriarchate’s Orthodox church in Ukraine.

In 2019, amid increased tensions with Russia, Ukraine established its own, autonomous Orthodox Church, altering a centuries-old religious tradition under which the Kyiv church answered to Moscow. That year, Ukraine’s government deported Bishop Gedeon and revoked his citizenship for actively supporting Russia’s armed aggression in the country.

Part of Mr. Putin’s rationale for the war has been to accuse the Ukrainians, without evidence, of planning the “destruction” of the Moscow Patriarchate’s church in Kyiv. The breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox Church has vehemently denounced the Russian invasion as fratricide.

“We say peace to all, do not judge one another,” Bishop Gedeon, whose Ukrainian citizenship was subsequently restored by a court, said in an appeal at the end of the service. As the faithful trickled out, he said it was critical “not to look for fault” and to pray and push for dialogue.

But some worshipers in the crypt had a clear sense of who was to blame.

Larisa Dimetruk, 62, from Lutsk in northwestern Ukraine, said she came to beseech St. Nicholas to make the Russians “stop their president.”

“Only the people can stop him,” she said. “We didn’t come here to pray together. We came here for a miracle.”

But some supported Mr. Putin. Larysa Makarava, 50, a Belarusian who lives in Bari, said that before the service she had taken her daughter, who stood by her side, to the eye doctor, who said he thought Mr. Putin was crazy. “I told him absolutely no. I opened his eyes,” she said, adding that Mr. Putin “is forced to do this. He is not against the people.”

Others simply felt torn and had no interest in talking politics.

“We’ve all run out of tears,” said Olga Sebekina, from St. Petersburg, Russia, who said her grandmother was Ukrainian and that she still had family there. “Which side of my heart should break more?”

Heartbreak was in abundance throughout Bari over the war.

As volunteers in the collection center furiously cut masking tape and sealed care packages, a wail erupted from the back of the room, freezing everyone in place. Tatiana Shyrokykh, 58, sobbed as she looked at her phone and a video sent by a relative showing an attack on Chernihiv in Ukraine’s north.

“My mother’s building,” she said, as she showed a gaping hole in an apartment building, fire smoldering on streets and ambulances navigating through rubble. The women put their arms around her and consoled her, with tears dampening their own eyes. A Ukrainian teenager in an Italia sweatshirt sat silent at a table, distractedly picking tape off scissors.

After Ms. Shyrokykh made some calls home and caught her breath, she said her grown children still lived in Chernihiv, though she had urged them to flee, and that they had taken refuge underground.

Her daughter had instructed her disabled mother to climb into the bathtub and keep her head low, which she said was how she survived when the attack came and blew out the apartment’s glass.

“All of Europe is scared of Putin and don’t want to do anything,” Ms. Shyrokykh said, starting to cry again. “He goes against the whole world, like a God.”

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