KIEV, Ukraine — It’s a conflict that has been raging in Ukraine for two years, costing thousands of lives and displacing millions of people. But the international community seems to have largely forgotten about it.
And as one who has lived in the very heart of the crisis, the leader of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church has some ideas as to why.
“Very often, in international society, so-called ‘rich countries’ are very much concentrated in their own interests and their own life, in their own international policy,” Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk said.
And very often, “modern politicians would rather close their eyes” and pretend that a problem doesn’t exist, rather than make a commitment to solve it, he said.
CNA sat down with his beatitude May 23 at his residence in Kiev (or Kyiv), where he opened up on a panorama of issues: from the conflict in east Ukraine to relations with the Orthodox and his friendship with Pope Francis.
The most urgent topic was what he called the “silent” war in the country’s east between Russian troops and Ukrainian soldiers fighting to keep their young independence in a climate of political and economic instability.
He also offered his thoughts on Pope Francis’ historic February meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and relations between their Churches, which have a sour history.
Pope Francis’ strategy for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue was also addressed, as well as the upcoming Pan Orthodox Council and the June visit of the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to Ukraine.
Below is the full text of CNA’s conversation with Archbishop Shevchuk:
What’s behind the conflict in east Ukraine?
The very, very essence of this conflict is the external aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine. After the fall of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, Ukraine voted in the referendum for its independence, but it is sad to say that our neighbor is starting to restore the Soviet Union, trying to pull back all those countries to the so-called “Eurasian Union.” For the Ukrainian people, all those social projects are a big discussion between our movement toward democracy, toward European values, or coming back to the times of the Soviet Union. It was a huge discussion in Ukraine, maybe three or four years ago. And the citizens of Ukraine decided to be a free and independent country — this is why we were attacked by our neighbor. Of course, Ukraine is a multiethnic and multi-religious country, with its inner tensions, conflicts and all kinds of historical causes, which bring us to the richness of our daily existence. But nevertheless, that aggression was using the weakness of the Ukrainian state after the so-called “revolution of dignity,” when that discussion about our future was, I would say, expressed by that phenomenon which we would call “Maidan.” People would just go out, expressing they are willing to live in a democratic and independent country. And during that discussion, using the weakness of the Ukrainian state, we were attacked by the Russian Federation, first with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and then the invasion of Russian troops in Donbass, which is the region in eastern Ukraine.
Two years into this conflict, there’s still debate about setting a definite boarder for the occupied territory. Why do you think that has been so difficult to do up to this point?
My opinion is that the borders of Ukraine are internationally established. So it is not a discussion about the Ukrainian borders — it’s a question about an illegal annexation and occupation of the Ukrainian territory. It is an issue of the breaking of international law and the system of international, worldwide security. If a strong, big country has a right to invade a small neighbor, international law does not exist anymore. So the whole issue is about justice and international law and respect of the integrity and serenity of your neighbors. This is an international problem.
It’s an international problem, but a lot of the international community seems to be unaware. Why do you think this conflict is so invisible to them? Are they indifferent?
I think there are many causes of that, I would say, “silent” war in Ukraine. Very often, in international society, so-called “rich countries” are very much concentrated in their own interests and their own life, in their own international policy. Those countries who are not directly involved in the welfare of those rich, global powers are very often marginalized and forgotten. Very often, modern politicians would rather close their eyes and make an impression that the problem does not exist, than making a commitment to solve those problems. I have to say that the situation in Ukraine, that war against a sovereign and independent country, the Ukrainian state, is the biggest international crisis in Eastern Europe after the Second World War. Not only on the diplomatic level, not only at a military and political one, but the humanitarian level as well, because that conflict involves millions of people who are suffering. Ukraine, right how, has more or less 2 million internally displaced persons. Many people are trying to simply survive in the rich Ukrainian soil. This is why Ukraine desperately needs an international solidarity. Because, very often, in today’s life, human suffering is becoming a simple show. Very often, in Western countries, news about war and suffering is simply an issue of some sort of everyday news. Very often, we are indifferent; very often, we would rather close our eyes and say, “This is not my business,” when we see bloodshed or human suffering. This is why the situation in Ukraine arises very deep questions: Do we commit ourselves to the very foundation of democracy, which is the dignity of the human person? Do we commit ourselves to establish the sanctity of human life? All these questions are rising right now in Ukraine, and we as Ukrainians would ask those questions to international society.
As far as the Greek-Catholic Church goes, how has the conflict affected it? Is there difficulty for priests in the conflict area? How is the Church handling the situation?
The role and the commitment of the Church in the conditions of war is pastoral care for those who are suffering. We have our parishes in Crimea; we have our parishes in the occupied territory of Donbass; we have our priests even in that so-called “Grey Zone,” which is a line of division between the territory that is controlled by the Ukrainian government and the occupied territory. We have our structures, our parishes, our communities in the whole territory of Ukraine, and our mission is to be with those who are in need, to serve those who are in danger, to be with those who need our solidarity. The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church is a global Church; we have our parishes, our communities, not only in Ukraine, but in South and North America, Australia, Western Europe, so that body of the Church in such extremely difficult conditions is more or less mobilized, so we’re trying to help those in need. Our priests are sacrificing their lives being with those who are in danger. We are trying to perform social services to the internally displaced persons; we are trying to be with the Ukrainian soldiers in the front line, who are giving up their lives for a free and independent Ukraine; and we’re trying as Christians to serve everybody who is in need without asking which kind of church you belong to, which nationality you are, which language you speak. Of course, a priest is not a simple social worker. By our pastoral care, we are bringing a witness, a witness to those who very often would feel abandoned by everybody. In such painful conditions, people would ask: “Does God care about us? Are we forgotten by God?” And the presence of our priests, of our nuns, of our bishops, with those people who are suffering, is a presence that God is with us, that Christ is always with those who are victims of aggression, because he himself became a victim on the cross, and in this way, he brings salvation to the world. I would say service, challenge and witness in everyday life in Ukraine.
What about collaboration with other rites and other Churches, in terms of mutual support? What has this been like?
As I mentioned before, Ukraine is a multiethnic, multicultural and multi-religious country, but in such dramatic conditions, we experienced ecumenism in action, because nobody is asking who you are and to what confession, what Church you belong to. We are united in our care for those who are in need. We are praying together; we are helping each other; we are supporting each other as Churches, as communities, because our common goal is to serve everyone who needs our service, because all Christians believe that each human person was created in the image and likeness of God. So our service to those who are in need is an essential part of our worship to God; we cannot praise God without bringing our service to those in whom he is present today, such as those who are in the hospital, who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are in danger of their lives.
The Latin Church has shown a lot of support to Greek Catholics in Ukraine and to humanitarian efforts on the ground. Pope Francis also had a collection to support conflict-relief efforts not long ago. What has this support meant to the Ukrainian people?
We are very grateful to the Holy Father for his initiative, first of all to bring attention of the international community to the suffering of Ukrainian citizens in Ukraine. That particular support, that particular humanitarian mission, which the Holy Father announced, is not directly a support of the local Church, but this is a support and help to the people who are victims of the unjust aggression. Of course, the local Churches, both Byzantine and Latin rite, we are open to cooperate with that mission of the Holy Father; we are open to offering our structures, our possibilities, our communities, to reach those people to whom the Holy Father is willing to help. We are very grateful that the Holy Father is trying to awaken the consciousness of European Christians to that silence about the unjust war against Ukraine.
I’d also like to ask about relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. The situation has been complicated, especially given the ongoing conflict, but what is the current state of relations between your Churches?
In Ukraine, we do not have the Russian Orthodox Church: We have the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, and that Church is also trying to help those who are in need. Of course, that Church is experiencing some internal tensions concerning the Russian aggression, because those soldiers who are killing Ukrainians, the majority of them, belong to the same Church. So the question is why members of the same Church are killing their brothers and sisters on the soil of Ukraine. This is a big question. But nevertheless, in Ukraine, we’re trying to cooperate with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church; we are trying to respect the sensibility of Orthodox believers and to help each other. I think we are discovering that there are many more things and issues that unite us than divide us. If we would abandon politics, if we would look into the eyes of those people to whom we are supposed to serve, we will rediscover the living Christ present among us, our God, which is the same for Catholic and Orthodox, the same God for Christians, Muslims and Jews — Our Lord, who is asking us to love our neighbor.
So would you say that efforts for collaboration are stronger than whatever tensions might exist?
I have to bring the witness that our people in the very, very, basic foundation of the Church are more united that the Church hierarchs are, and they are asking us to follow them. Those very profound questions — Why do we suffer? Do we have hope? Does our sacrifice have any meaning? — are the same questions (all) people are asking: Orthodox, priests, bishops, Catholics, Muslims and Jews, and I think if we will be honest and faithful to our own vocation, we will give the same response to those people. In that service, we are and will be united.
Speaking of relations between Church hierarchy, what is your opinion of the Pope’s meeting with Patriarch Kirill in February?
I think it was a historical meeting. We are very thankful to God that it finally happened, because for decades we as Ukrainian Greek-Catholics were called an obstacle for that meeting. Thanks be to God that now we are not an obstacle for such brotherly relationships and meetings. I think that the Holy Father is opening a new page in the history of relationships between Catholics and Orthodox. But in order to cooperate, in order to develop our brotherly relationships we cannot put any conditions. The main discussion in Ukraine, (in terms of) some sort of “conditions,” [was about] some points of the joint declaration that was signed. But the Holy Father, many times when I had the chance to talk to him, underlined that, for him, the most important (thing) is a person and not a paper, a meeting and not a declaration, cooperation and not some theoretical thinking, some philosophical statements, because that theory would come and go, a declaration would be forgotten, but the gesture of open arms will remain.
You have known the Pope since his time in Argentina. He seemed to have had great success in uniting people from different religions and backgrounds in that context. Do you think he’s using the same strategy as then, but in perhaps a broader scale as Pope?
I have to say he is the same person as he was in Buenos Aires. He’s the same as the Successor of Peter in Rome, and his policy is almost the same, because he’s trying to really break all those divisions, all those prejudices against brothers and sisters. I think, really, that he’s under the motion of the Holy Spirit, which brings him to appreciate the dignity of the human person regardless of what confession, Church or political background that person comes from. I think this is how we Christians are supposed to bring our witness to Christ in the future, and I think in that motion of the Holy Spirit, we can build unity: the unity of the Church, the unity of the human race. I remember the words of St. Pope John Paul II — that a united Europe can be united only in Christ. And I think the Holy Father Francis is simply going forward on the same path.
Would say that, so far, his strategy is working?
On the theme of dialogue, another historic meeting is coming up in June, the Pan Orthodox Council. What are your thoughts on this, considering your presence in a majority-Orthodox country?
I wrote a letter to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and to the members of the Pan Orthodox Council assuring our prayer, because the challenges which Christianity is facing today are common, for Orthodox and for Catholics. As I said previously, there are many more things which unite us than divide us. The biggest scandal for our world is a division between Christians. So my prayer is that the Holy Spirit will help our brethren Orthodox to be united in their efforts in order to remain faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in today’s globalized culture. Our prayer is that openness to dialogue with modern culture, and to dialogue with brethren Christians who are maybe not a member of the Orthodox communion, will be a topic of their discussions. Because we can face those challenges only if we will be in dialogue with God and today’s world, if we will be able to love God and our neighbor. We cannot love our neighbor without entering into dialogue with him. We cannot bring our witness to today’s humanity without the spirit of love. Love brings that openness, that freshness, that vibrancy to the Church. This is my prayer and my wish for the Pan Orthodox Council, which I expressed in my letter.
Will any representatives of the Greek Catholic Church be observing?
No. As I understand, the observers from the Catholic side, particularly from the Greek-Catholic side, were not invited to the council. But we respect their sensibilities and wishes, and nevertheless, we will support (and) we will be united with the Orthodox hierarchs in prayer and in the Holy Spirit.
While this is a council specific to the Orthodox Churches, which of the discussion topics would be most pertinent, from a Catholic standpoint? Issues such as the unification of liturgical calendars, for example?
Well, those topics mostly are inner issues of the Orthodox community, so this is why we are not entering into the discussion or arguing with the Orthodox brethren. Any kind of growing in unity among the Orthodox would be helpful for our dialogue, because some sort of division between the Orthodox Churches hurts the possibility to have an open and successful dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics. Perhaps in Ukraine, we have three Orthodox Churches, and we pray someday at least the Orthodox in Ukraine will be united among them. It will facilitate our dialogue the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the same in the worldwide perspective. More unity among the Orthodox will bring more unity among all Christians.
One final question. Is there any news on the Pope coming to Ukraine?
But Cardinal Parolin is coming in June.
Yes, His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parloin, the secretary of state of Vatican City, announced that he is coming. Right now, we are preparing his visit, discussing his program in Ukraine, and we hope that he will announce everything that we should know about a possible visit of the Holy Father and the humanitarian action of His Holiness, in order to help those who are suffering in Ukraine.