Ukrainian churches weigh in on government protests

When President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine pulled out of a political and trade deal with the European Union in late November, citing fears for trade ties with Russia, he could hardly have expected such a public backlash.

Now, amid an economic crisis and with parts of the capital city of Kiev still barricaded by protesters, President Yanukovych’s relationship with Russia is strengthening, much to the dismay of many Ukranian citizens, including Catholics.

“Our mission is spiritual, not political,” said Father Ihor Yatsiv, spokesman for Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church. “But we’re concerned for the good of Ukrainians, and we believe this good lies with Europe. Being part of Europe has to be more important than preferential gas prices from Moscow.”

Political divisions

Ukraine long has been divided between a predominantly Orthodox East, traditionally looking toward Russia, and a largely Catholic West, which feels closer to Western countries. This has made the as-yet-unsigned 500-clause Association Agreement, establishing a Ukraine-EU free trade zone, crucial to Ukraine’s economic and geopolitical future.

Coming from the eastern Donetsk region, Yanukovych became president in February 2010, five years after a previously disputed election win was overturned during Ukraine’s pro-Western “Orange Revolution.” But he was never accepted by many Ukrainians, including followers of his key rival, former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed for seven years on alleged fraud charges in October 2011.

The EU criticized Tymoshenko’s imprisonment as politically motivated, and demanded her release as a precondition for the new agreement. When Yanukovych shocked Western governments by suddenly reneging on the Association Agreement, the move provoked outrage among pro-Western Ukrainians. Many complained of unfair pressure from Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, who has urged Ukraine to join a customs union with other ex-Soviet republics instead. Demonstrators occupied Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, and blockaded government buildings, demanding the resignation of Yanukovych and his premier, Mykola Azarov. When police moved in to clear the square, hundreds were injured and the protests intensified. 

Christian divisions

Catholic leaders have criticized aspects of Yanukovych’s rule, including his failure to hand back Catholic properties seized under Soviet rule. During a visit to Brussels last March, they backed closer EU links. But EU ties have been opposed by the Moscow-linked Orthodox church, whose Russian patriarch, Kirill I, came to Kiev to give Yanukovich a special blessing at his inauguration four years ago. Not surprisingly, the Moscow-linked Orthodox church reacted calmly to Yanukovych’s withdrawal from the EU deal. But Greek Catholics shared the public anger, raising fears that the mass protests could acquire a religious edge.

“We condemn acts of violence by law enforcement officials against civilians,” said Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, the church’s leader, when the police intervened.

Some Greek Catholic leaders have since gone further. Cardinal Lubomir Huzar, the Church’s former head, has accused the government of violating “principles of humanity” and lauded the demonstrators as “the voice of the nation.” Ukraine’s smaller Roman Catholic Church has maintained a low profile during the demonstrations. But its bishops’ conference has also warned of “unintended consequences” from the police crackdown and defended the right of citizens “to defend a just cause,” citing Catholic teaching in its message. Archbishop Piotr Malczuk of Kiev-Zhitomir, the conference’s vice president, said he prefers the Western state system, and fears bloodshed if President Yanukovych opts for an alternative deal with Russia.

But he’s uneasy about Greek Catholic leaders’ strident support for the opposition, and insists the Church should consider the concerns of both sides.

“Everyone wants the same here: peace, social justice, security and prosperity,” Archbishop Malczuk told Our Sunday Visitor. “But we must remember this is a multiethnic and multi-confessional state. While it’s normal that many people want to belong to Europe, some Ukrainians also favor links with Russia. Whatever our political preferences, we must find our own way.”

Support for democracy

Ukraine’s Lviv-based Catholic University, which Bishop Gudziak also heads, has accused Yanukovych’s government of “sending hired thugs” to “fuel a bloody confrontation”; and on Dec. 11, its general assembly called for civil disobedience to bring about early elections. Father Yatsiv insists his Church’s tough stance is justified. Greek Catholic priests have come not just from Kiev, but from Lviv, Donetsk and other towns, too, he said; and while they’re united behind the protests, they’re not alone. Many Orthodox clergy are “on the same side of the barricade” too.

“Not everyone supports the European option,” Father Yatsiv told OSV. “But the division isn’t between Catholics and Orthodox. Priests and people from all churches concur that our country needs a fuller democracy, and a government free of corruption which doesn’t abuse its power.”

Ukraine’s smaller Orthodox denominations have also backed the protesters, with the leader of the Kiev Patriarchate, Filaret Denisenko, calling on President Yanukovych to sign the EU Agreement.

Call for dialogue, prayers

But the head of Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox church, Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, has also called for dialogue, suggesting his support for Yanukovych could have limits. Volodymyr has ordered Advent prayers for peace in Orthodox churches and monasteries nationwide, and on Dec. 13 he sent representatives to round-table talks in Kiev. Meanwhile, a group of senior Orthodox archpriests and archimandrites has backed Ukraine’s “convergence with Europe,” maintaining that Europe upholds “the Christian values [of] truth, justice, freedom and individual dignity.”

Besides summoning the round table, Yanukovych has hinted he could still sign the Association Agreement if European governments provide Ukraine with the $27 billion it needs annually to upgrade its economy. But there have been demands for the release of jailed protesters — and threats of sanctions from the United State if the government resorts to force again.

Archbishop Malczuk fears the situation could still spiral out of control, if provocateurs stoke tension and violence. But Greek Catholic leaders remain angry, blaming Ukraine’s president and government for the conflict.

The standoff remains tense and uncertain.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw.