The election earlier this year of a new Orthodox and Russia-friendly president has some Catholics in Ukraine jittery about the prospect of dampened religious freedom. 

Viktor Yanukovich’s election as head of state, five years after his previous disputed win was overturned by an “Orange Revolution,” is widely seen as a turning point for Ukraine, which has been pulled between rival eastern and western forces since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. 

Unlike his defeated pro-Western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, the new president comes from predominantly Orthodox eastern Ukraine, raising fears that a new focus on ties with Moscow could negatively affect the traditionally Catholic west. 

But at least one senior Catholic is keen to rebut claims that minority churches like his own face new hardships as a result. 

“Some public figures are talking up religious issues — we need to react early to signs of trouble, but we also shouldn’t exaggerate,” said Bishop Marian Buczek of Kharkhov-Zaporizia, secretary-general of Ukraine’s Catholic Bishops Conference. 

“The rights of confessions are protected under the constitution here, and I haven’t heard of anyone wishing trouble for Catholics,” he said . “After 19 years of statehood, Ukraine has its own governing structures — no sober person would think of handing it back to Russia or returning to the Soviet era of fighting the faith.” 

Minority church misgivings were heightened when the largest of Ukraine’s three rival Orthodox churches, which is loyal to the Moscow patriarchate, conspicuously welcomed Yanukovich’s election, and Russia’s Orthodox patriarch, Kirill I, arrived in Kiev to give him a special inaugural blessing, telling Ukrainians in a message that the two countries were “tied together by a common history and common faith.” 

They were raised again when Yanukovich departed from tradition by failing to invite minority church leaders to a joint cathedral service. In April, bishops from Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, which was outlawed under Soviet rule, cautioned the president in an open letter that all faiths should be treated equally. 

“Unlike certain countries of the world, where one religious organization enjoys privileged status, Ukraine is a multi-confessional state,” said the bishops, whose Church uses the Eastern liturgy but is in full communion with Rome. “Any favoritism toward one faith at the cost of others can only deepen divisions between our state’s citizens and harm the Ukrainian nation.” 

Totalitarian return? 

In May, the U.S.-born Greek Catholic rector of Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), Father Borys Gudziak, circulated a memorandum describing how a visiting representative of Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, had warned him not to allow “illegal activities” among his students. 

The priest said he had evidence that his telephone was being tapped in an attempt to recruit him as a “secret collaborator” and undermine the university’s academic and religious freedom. He said the fact that Ukraine’s 170 other universities had failed to protest the new government’s “controversial and in some cases inflammatory” policies indicated that “fear and accommodation” were rapidly returning. 

“The revival of such practices is a conscious attempt to revive the methods of the Soviet totalitarian past,” the rector said in his memorandum. “The population of Ukraine continues to fear and distrust both state security and police personnel because of the woeful track record of law enforcement and because of the diffuse practice of police intimidation of honest politicians, journalists , common citizens and the wanton extortion practiced by security institutions and police.” 

As the only Catholic university in the former Soviet Union, the UCU was commended by Pope Benedict XVI during a visit to Rome two years ago by the Ukrainian Catholic bishops. Unsurprisingly, Father Gudziak’s complaints gained wide media coverage. 

But the SBU’s director, Valerii Khoroshkovskyi, defended security service actions in an interview with Ukraine’s Komersant daily, and dismissed claims that attempts were underway to restrict democratic freedoms. He warned Father Gudziak’s memorandum would be used by “opponents of stabilization.” 

Bishop Buczek, the secretary-general of the bishops’ conference , also believes the rector overreacted. Talks with SBU representatives are far from unusual, he said, and Catholic bishops are always “treated equally” at meetings with other religious leaders. 

As for complaints that President Yanukovich has ignored minority churches, these should be placed in context — both Yushchenko and Leonid Kuchma before him also made church leaders wait months before meeting them. 

“It’s true that Orthodox officials in the security service can sometimes use their positions to make people feel threatened,” Bishop Buczek told OSV. “It’s also understandable that, as an Orthodox Christian, the new president will meet most often with Orthodox leaders, just as a Catholic president might look to the pope. But he also has a duty of openness to everyone — this is the essence of democracy and tolerance. Sometimes it’s better to be diplomatic rather than making noisy claims about persecution, which may merely create worse tensions.” 

But Bishop Buczek acknowledges there are problems. 

Catholics make up a tenth of the Ukrainian population of 50 million, compared with around a third professing Orthodoxy, and ties between the churches have long been tense over Orthodox allegations of Catholic proselytism, as well as over the reclaiming of churches by Greek Catholics, who are known pejoratively as “Uniates” by Orthodox leaders. 

As the heartland of ancient Kievan Christianity and a center for Orthodox monasticism and priestly vocations, Ukraine remains important for Russia’s Orthodox Church, which may well use Yanukovich’s presidency to strengthen its position. 

In May, the president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki of Lviv, said that the pope had accepted an invitation to visit Ukraine in 2012 to close a Eucharistic Congress and commemorate the relocation of its first Catholic bishopric. 

‘Choking embrace’ 

The plan was immediately criticized by the Orthodox Moscow’s patriarchate, which warned that a new papal pilgrimage would call in question recent “significant improvements” in inter-church relations. With Patriarch Kirill set to revisit Ukraine himself later this month, the country’s two smaller Orthodox churches are anxious. They say the patriarch plans to obtain Ukrainian citizenship and set up a second residence at Kiev’s Cave Monastery, and have accused him of “choking Ukraine in a brotherly embrace” while seeking to “destroy the independence and sovereignty” of local churches. 

At the practical level, Catholics have complained of being offered less state help than their Orthodox counterparts in renovating church properties given back after Soviet rule. In addition, numerous Catholic churches still remain in government hands two decades later. 

Bishop Buczek remains sanguine all the same. He concedes that local officials can create obstacles for Catholics but calls them legal matters that have to be argued out and resolved. In his own Kharkhov-Zaporizia diocese, Catholics were involved in lengthy court battles to successfully secure the return of St. Joseph’s church in Dniepropetrovsk, which had been turned into a gambling hall under Soviet rule and more recently by a California-based firm as a casino. 

Despite the problems, Catholic devotion remains strong in Ukraine, and has seen increased priestly vocations in both eastern and western parts of the country. On June 27, when Ukraine’s Cardinal Marian Jaworski celebrated his 60th year as a priest at a Mass attended by government officials, he received a friendly message from President Yanukovich, praising his pastoral and teaching work, as well as his contributions to rebuilding the Catholic Church and securing “good relations between Ukraine and the Vatican.” 

“After eight decades of being barred from practicing their faith, people here want to choose which church they belong to, and the authorities are not impeding them,” Bishop Buczek told OSV. “Though local clerks like to show off their power, justice is gradually being done. If the Church doesn’t get mixed up in politics, and if politics aren’t forcibly imposed on the Church, everything will be OK.” 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.

Patchwork (sidebar)

Ukraine’s Latin-rite Catholic Church has four dioceses and 870 parishes, compared with the Greek Catholic Church’s 1 1 dioceses and roughly 4, 000 parishes. Both Catholic communities have faced property and jurisdictional disputes with Orthodox parishes since the country’s 1991 independence, and sometimes among themselves. 

Orthodox Christians are divided between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, which is concentrated in the east with 9,000 parishes, and a smaller Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephallous Orthodox Church, which are not recognized by other Orthodox churches.