The Council meeting was convened following the missile strikes on Sunday which damaged the centuries-old Transfiguration Cathedral, the first and foremost Orthodox church in the historic city.
Other landmarks in the city centre, a protected World Heritage Site, were also damaged in the attack, which killed one person and injured several others.
Culture under fire
Khaled Khiari, UN Assistant Secretary-General for political and peacebuilding affairs, noted that this was far from the first attack against Ukrainian culture and heritage. Since the start of the war, UN cultural agency UNESCO has verified damage to 274 cultural sites in Ukraine, including 117 religious sites.
“As the Secretary-General stated this weekend, we are concerned about the threat that this war increasingly poses to Ukrainian culture and heritage, and we urge the Russian Federation to immediately cease attacks against cultural property protected by widely ratified international normative instruments,” he said.
Port facilities hit
The attack was preceded by several successive nights of missile and drone strikes against Odesa and other cities in southern Ukraine, including Mykolaiv and Chornomorsk, following the collapse of the UN-brokered Black Sea Initiative on grain exports. Three people were killed and dozens more were injured.
Mr. Khiari recalled that both the UN political affairs chief and Humanitarian Coordinator warned the Council last week that attacks against Ukrainian Black Sea port facilities could have far-reaching impacts on global food security.
“We have now seen disturbing reports of further Russian strikes against port infrastructure, including grain storage facilities, in Reni and Izmail ports on the Danube River – a key route for shipment of Ukrainian grain, not far from Ukraine’s borders with Moldova and Romania,” he said.
Deliberately targeting infrastructure that facilitates the export of food to the rest of the world could be life-threatening to millions, he added, appealing for an immediate end to the attacks.
Latest war ‘casualties’
“In the wake of Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Initiative, these latest attacks signal a calamitous turn for Ukrainians and the world,” he said.
“Port cities that allow for the export of grain such as Odesa, Reni and Izmail, are a lifeline for many. Now they are the latest casualties in this senseless, brutal war.”
Mr. Khiari also highlighted the desperate need for funding to support humanitarian operations in Ukraine. While the UN and partners reached some 7.3 million people during the first half the year, a $3.9 billion response plan is less than 30 per cent funded.
Meeting on religion
The Security Council held another meeting earlier on Wednesday focused on alleged persecution involving the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Russia had requested the meeting, having first raised the issue in January when it alleged that Ukraine was attempting to “destroy” the Church, which is affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Nihal Saad, Director of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), which promotes intercultural dialogue, said politicization of religion in the context of the war in Ukraine fuels intercommunal tensions, stokes fear and triggers violence.
Concern over restrictions
She said restrictions to freedom of religion and the safety of religious communities, both in territory controlled by the Ukrainian Government and in Russian-occupied areas, is a matter of grave concern.
Citing UN human rights reports, she noted that incidents of violence against members and supporters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church increased between February and April of this year.
April also saw several city and regional councils banning Ukrainian Orthodox activities, as well as a surge in hate speech and several incidents of violence.
Meanwhile, in areas under Russian control, troops perpetrated actions against clergy and members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Christian Evangelical communities, including forced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture and unlawful deportations during the period from 1 August 2022 to 1 January 2023.
Russian authorities also raided, ransacked and closed three places of worship belonging to the Baptist community in the city of Melitopol, allegedly for the community’s purported links with foreign intelligence services.
Role of religious leaders
Ms. Saad said urged both sides to respect and uphold freedom of religion or belief.
“Targeting religious actors and faith communities across Ukraine is short-sighted, miscalculated and counter-productive,” she said.
“The role of religious leaders in maintaining solidarity across ecumenical lines is crucial to preserving the social fabric of a unified Ukraine and will be a key factor in peacebuilding if and when the war comes to an end,” she added.
Prior to the start of the meeting, Russia expressed disagreement because one of the two non-UN briefers it had proposed, an Orthodox priest, was not invited to participate.
The United Kingdom, which holds the rotating Council presidency this month, said Russia had been asked to limit participation to one briefer.
Russia called for a procedural vote to extend an invitation to the speaker, which failed to pass. The country said it would not speak in the subsequent meeting as a sign of protest.