The day before the referendum vote to determine whether the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine would seek its independence or join the Russian Federation, tensions escalated when Father Mykola Kvych, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic pastor and military chaplain, was kidnapped. A few hours later, he was released, but not without being accused of inciting anti-Russian riots.
According to Vatican Radio, the priest’s abduction followed warnings issued earlier in March advising all Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests to leave the area. Many, though, chose to stay and face what is now, following Russia’s electoral victory, almost certain to be religious persecution. “Our priests and bishops have been very close to the people,” Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy told Vatican Radio when the kidnapping occurred. “We’ve been inspired by the example of Our Lord [who] went a long distance from fellowship with the Father to incarnate himself and be in our reality.” He added that the priests had been inspired by Pope Francis’ call for pastors to “have the smell of their sheep.” “Our pastors have been with the people, and they’re today with the people enduring this occupation in the Crimea,” Bishop Gudziak said.
Catholics in Ukraine are no strangers to struggle. On the front lines of the ongoing fight between the East and the West, Greek Catholics under the Tsarist Empire were forced to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Under Communist rule, churches were destroyed, and priests and other faithful martyred. Those who survived to carry on the Faith were forced to worship in secret. It was only Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991, following the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism, that paved the way for religious freedom.
Catholics in Ukraine are no strangers to struggle.
Now, many fear that the past 23 years are in danger of being erased. In an interview with Catholic News Service, Father Mykhailo Milchakovskyi, a pastor in Kerch, Ukraine (in Crimea), said no one knows what will happen next.
“Many people are trying to sell their homes and move to other parts of Ukraine,” he said March 12. “Our church has no legal status in the Russian Federation, so it’s uncertain which laws will be applied if Crimea is annexed. We fear our churches will be confiscated and our clergy arrested.”
It’s not just Christians who are likely to face persecution. The Muslim Tatar minority, who boycotted the referendum vote, know from all-too-recent history the danger that Russian rule presents. In 1944, Joseph Stalin exiled the minority population from the area for allegedly conspiring with the Nazi party during World War II.
The showdown in Ukraine is complex, and the many nuances are often obscure to the West. Nationalist factions in both Ukraine and Crimea can verge toward xenophobia. Anti-Semitism is a risk, as is hostility between Orthodox and Catholics and between Christians and Muslims. In this caldron of tensions, the role Russia has played in exacerbating the fragmentation of Ukraine is dangerous, as are actions taken to make the Russian-speaking minority feel threatened.
In early March, Pope Francis urged world leaders to rely on dialogue to resolve the current crisis in Ukraine. “I am making a heartfelt appeal to the international community: support every initiative for dialogue and harmony,” he said.
The pope’s appeal for dialogue is our own at this time of grave international tension. Catholics in the United States must remain in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in faith in Ukraine and Crimea, and we must do everything possible to keep the forces of violence and hatred at bay.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor