Ukrainian churches in middle of upheaval

As the political situation in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula heats up and Ukrainians are still reeling from three months of determined occupation protests in Kiev that culminated in dozens of deaths and injuries, churches and religious officials have taken an active role.

“Our own Church stayed with the people as the struggle widened from a political one over integration with Europe into a larger one for basic human rights and dignity,” said Bishop Hlib Lonchyna, from Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, which combines the Eastern Rite with loyalty to Rome. “It supported the people’s just aspirations throughout, while our priests led prayers and administered sacraments. It’s important we now look at things in a Christian way — seeking justice without revenge.”

An ongoing crisis

Putting that bold summons into practice could be difficult. Ukraine’s crisis erupted in November when President Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of a key association agreement with the European Union, citing fears for trade ties with Russia. The president, an Orthodox Christian from Donetsk, had been noted for a pro-Russian stance since his February 2010 election. But the long-negotiated deal, establishing a Ukraine-EU free trade zone, would have drawn the country closer to the West, 22 years after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.

When the agreement was canceled, pro-Western Ukrainians reacted with outrage and occupied central Kiev. In late January, Yanukovych’s premier, Mykola Azarov, resigned after repealing contested laws and pledging an amnesty for jailed demonstrators. But with parts of the capital resembling a war zone, and unrest spreading nationwide, opposition groups demanded fresh elections and the president’s resignation.

The crisis reached its bloody denouement on Feb. 18-19, when the Berkut riot police stormed Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, leaving 88 confirmed dead and hundreds injured by clashes and sniper fire. Although civil war was averted by an internationally brokered deal, Yanukovych then fled the city and was declared deposed by a provisional government. 

The role of the Church

Greek and Latin Catholics account for a tenth of Ukraine’s 46 million inhabitants, compared to around a third traditionally professing Orthodoxy.

But Orthodox Christians are divided between the main Ukrainian Orthodox Church — subject to Russia’s Moscow Patriarchate — and two other Orthodox denominations: the Kiev Patriarchate and Autocephalous Church, which aren’t recognized by Orthodox communities abroad. 

In late January meetings with Yanukovych and his main opponents, religious leaders offered to act as “mediators and peacemakers.” But all except the Moscow-linked Orthodox church made it clear their sympathies lay with the pro-Western opposition. As the confrontation intensified, they gave pastoral help to the Kiev protesters; as Yanukovych’s authority collapsed, they pitched in behind the new government.

“It’s up to Ukrainians, and no one else, to work out solutions to their own problems,” Bishop Lonchyna told Our Sunday Visitor. “Although Yanukovych was legitimately elected, he de-legitimized himself by showing he wasn’t exercising his office correctly or justly. I hope he’ll realize the bad things he’s done, repent and accept justice, even if this means being tried and sent to prison.” 

The part played by churches in Ukraine’s drama is certain to be long remembered. The Greek Catholic Church’s youthful leader, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, spoke out repeatedly against the violence and opened his Patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ to fleeing protesters.

Speaking to Ukraine’s Radio Era, Archbishop Shevchuk recalled how people found courage as the violence flared and queued to make their confessions before priests as snipers opened fire on the crowds in Independence Square.

“They knew that, after confession, they’d return to the barricades and might well give their lives for Ukraine,” the archbishop said. “This civic responsibility for one’s homeland is a deep sign of the cleansing underway in our society, which is being changed and transformed in the process.”

Other Greek Catholic leaders played prominent roles as well, including Bishop Borys Gudziak, rector of Ukraine’s Catholic University in Lviv, one of whose lecturers, 29-year-old Bohdan Solchanyk, was killed by a police sniper.

So did members of Ukraine’s smaller Latin Catholic Church, which allowed its St. Alexander Church to be used as a makeshift hospital during the fighting. Dominican Father Jacek Dudka confirmed that snipers had targeted demonstrators at random, aiming at their heads, necks and chests, and recalled how he had recited the Rosary with protesters when the fight was at its deadliest.

Meanwhile, a priest from the Kiev-Zhitomir diocese described to OSV how armed Berkut units had burned a chapel in Independence Square — set up in December by Ukrainian Catholic clergy — and had attempted to beat open the doors of the cathedral to arrest injured demonstrators. The priest, who identified himself only as Father Matthew, said at least one Catholic parishioner had been shot dead by police outside the cathedral. He described how his own car had been searched by troops with Kalashnikov rifles as he arrived for Mass to ensure he was not “bringing food or medicines for protesters.”

“When the attack on the square began, our cathedral was filled with bleeding people, mostly hit by rubber bullets but probably by live rounds as well,” Father Matthew told OSV. “People were shocked and frightened. We could only hope they’d respect holy places and wouldn’t try to break into our churches.”

Ukraine’s smaller Orthodox denominations also backed the protesters, with the leader of the Kiev Patriarchate, Filaret Denysenko, calling on President Yanukovych to sign the EU agreement. But the Moscow-linked Orthodox church, which has previously opposed EU ties in favor of closer links with Russia, also bowed to the inevitable and accepted that Yanukovych could not remain as head of state. In a late February statement, the church’s governing synod condemned the “criminal actions” of the dismissed government, which had “provoked bloodshed in the streets.” It also urged Ukrainians “not to succumb to provocations,” and denied as “complete nonsense” media claims that Yanukovych was hiding at Orthodox monasteries in Donetsk.

The views of all denominations have been reflected by Ukraine’s Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which represents, by some counts, up to 90 percent of the population. After appealing repeatedly against bloodshed, the council declared support in late February for the new “legitimate government of Ukraine,” and called on it to “ensure full restoration of constitutional order” and the “rights and freedoms of citizens.”

Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, who also chairs the Kiev parliament, or Verkhovna Rada, thanked the churches for ensuring “the word of God was heard on the Maidan,” and promised regular talks with religious leaders.

Escalating factors

As of March 4, however, all hopes of a brighter future look set to be put on hold by Russia’s moves against Ukraine in Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to claim Yanukovych is the legitimate leader of the nation and said if Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine ask for help, Russia has the right “to take all measures to protect the rights of those people.”

In a joint declaration, as world leaders urged Moscow to step back, the Council of Churches appealed for solidarity and prayers, and it vigorously rejected “Russian propaganda” that Ukraine had been taken over by extremists. That’s likely to be the response of Ukrainians and their supporters everywhere. Bishop Lonchyna believes Yanukovych, who faces charges of “mass murder of peaceful citizens,” was justly overthrown, and Moscow’s claims that Russian lives were endangered by events in Ukraine were just “camouflage” for a planned aggression.

Pope Francis, in his Angelus address March 2, asked the faithful to pray for Ukraine, so that the country “will endeavour to overcome misunderstandings and build together the future of the nation.”

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.