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Russian missile destroys Transfiguration Cathedral’s central altar in Odesa

Debris surrounds the Transfiguration Cathedral, which was damaged during a Russian missile strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa July 23, 2023. (OSV News photo/Nina Liashonok, Reuters)

By Lilia Kovalyk Vasiuta and Gina Christian

(OSV News) — A Russian attack on a key Ukrainian port city has partially destroyed a historic Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral and UNESCO World Heritage site, prompting international outrage and pledges to rebuild.

Amid a July 23 nighttime attack by Russia on Odesa, an X-22 anti-ship missile struck the Ukrainian Orthodox Holy Transfiguration Cathedral (Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral). The missile directly hit the central altar, as a result of which the cathedral building and the three lower floors were partially destroyed, while the interior and icons were significantly damaged.

The missile was one of 19 various kinds launched against the city that evening in a barrage that killed one and injured 22, including four children.

Since abandoning the Black Sea Grain Initiative on July 17 — a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations to ensure vital grain supplies from Ukraine to Africa, the Middle East and Asia — Russia has relentlessly targeted Odesa, the key port for such shipments.

The Odesa Diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. “This act of terrorism against the main shrine and spiritual heart of the city of Odesa — the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral, around which peaceful civilians reside, and the cathedral itself is in no way connected with military facilities,” the diocese added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his evening video message of July 23 announced that Ukraine will “definitely restore” Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral in Odesa.

“We cannot allow people around the world to get used to terrorist attacks. The target of all these missiles is not just cities, villages or people. Their target is humanity and the foundations of our entire European culture,” said Zelenskyy.

Along with the cathedral, almost 50 other buildings, 25 of them architectural monuments, had also been destroyed that night in Odesa’s historic center, which as a whole forms a UNESCO World Heritage site. The consulate of Greece also sustained damage, as did China’s consulate three days prior.

Zelenskyy noted that the cathedral — consecrated in 1809 as the first and primary Orthodox church in Odesa — had been “looted and destroyed by Bolsheviks” in 1936, and “restored in independent Ukraine.”

“And now terrorists are trying to destroy it again,” he said.

Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni pledged Italy’s assistance in restoring the cathedral.

UNESCO condemned “in the strongest terms the brazen attack carried out by the Russian forces, hit several cultural sites in the city center of Odesa, home to the World Heritage property ‘The Historic Centre of Odesa.'”

“The people who went to that cathedral to pray are crying today,” said Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, while speaking in Lviv, Ukraine, to youth commemorating the founding of the “Ukrainian Youth – Christ” movement.

“Today a Russian missile hit not just the sanctuary of their temple, it hit their heart,” he said, adding “the actions of these criminals are not God’s, but the devil’s logic.”

“I don’t know if that Russian criminal, who pressed the button, understood that this rocket would not hit the Odesa port, but the Transfiguration Cathedral,” Major Archbishop Shevchuk said.

The attack on the cathedral also drew condemnation from Ukrainian community leaders in the U.S.

Father Taras Naumenko, mitered protopriest of St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Philadelphia, told OSV News that Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has “more than once blessed (Russian) soldiers” in their efforts to commit genocide in Ukraine.

“He has told them to have this victory for Russia — that even if they die, they will reach the eternal kingdom because they are fighting for the purity of the faith,” said Father Naumenko. “But this is not about religion. It’s about greed, money; the purity of power.”

“This is but another item to add to the long list of crimes against humanity the Russians are racking up,” said Nicholas Rudnytzky, professor of history and dean of academic services Manor College, located in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, which has deep roots in the Ukrainian-American community.

“Russia has plundered our museums, killed our local officials, tortured and stolen our children and is destroying our churches,” Rudnytzky told OSV News. “If that does not show how this is an existential war for the Ukrainians, nothing will.”

The attack was “yet another signature piece of (Russia’s) campaign of genocide and terror,” said Eugene Luciw, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America’s Philadelphia chapter and a member of Presentation of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

Luciw added the need for greater support for Ukraine to ensure “a decisive victory against evil” that includes “bringing the perpetrators of these war crimes against humanity to swift justice and punishment before a war tribunal.”

UNESCO will send a mission to Odesa to carry out a preliminary damage assessment.

The organization noted that a number of significant cultural objects were damaged as a result of the attack, including the Transfiguration Cathedral, the first and main Orthodox church in Odesa, founded in 1794.

“This act of hostility comes only days after other attacks that impacted many cultural heritage sites in areas protected under the World Heritage Convention in Lviv and Odesa,” UNESCO noted.

Lilia Kovalyk Vasiuta writes for OSV News from Lviv. Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.

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