KIEV, Ukraine — The apostolic nuncio to Ukraine has urged efforts to support Catholics in the nation, warning that Russia’s expansion into the country has caused major instability and threatens a return to political persecution.
“The danger of repression of the Greek-Catholic Church exists in whatever part of Ukraine Russia might establish its predominance or continue through acts of terrorism to push forward with its aggression,” Archbishop Thomas Gullickson said Sept. 23.
“Any number of statements emanating from the Kremlin of late leave little doubt of Russian-Orthodox hostility and intolerance toward Ukrainian Greek-Catholics.”
Archbishop Gullickson was addressing a meeting of Aid to the Church in Need’s international directors, who were meeting at the charity’s international headquarters in Koenigstein, Germany.
“There is no reason for excluding the possibility of another wholesale repression of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, as came about in 1946, with the complicity of the Orthodox brethren and the blessing of Moscow,” he stated.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was severely persecuted in the country while it was a part of the Soviet Union.
The nuncio updated the officials of Aid to the Church in Need on the situation of Catholics in Ukraine, especially in light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continuing armed conflicts in other border regions between Ukrainian military forces and pro-Russian rebel groups and Russian soldiers.
Archbishop Gullickson said that, until the July death of Orthodox Metropolitan Volodymyr, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate clearly recognized the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s right to care for its faithful in eastern and southern Ukraine.
However, outside of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic stronghold of Galicia, the archbishop said, these small communities are “menaced with extinction.”
The U.S.-born archbishop also discussed the situation in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March 2014, following political upheaval in Ukraine.
“Since Crimea’s annexation by Russia, in violation of international law, life is harder for everyone, but especially for non-Orthodox, and the authorities have continually menaced some if not all of the Catholic priests serving there,” Archbishop Gullickson said.
Many Latin-Catholic and Greek-Catholic clergy have been forced to leave Crimea. Both Latin and Greek Catholics are facing difficulties in properly registering ownership of Church property and in ensuring legal residency for their clergy.
Archbishop Gullickson said it is uncertain whether Crimean authorities will honor invitations to priests and to bishops to serve in the region, whose residency restrictions for clergy are now much more stringent than those in Russia itself.
Only one of the five Greek-Catholic priests previously serving in Crimea now remains, he said. The priest and 15 parishioners had been detained during an early September outing to Yalta, but were released the next day.
Archbishop Gullickson said he has heard that Crimean authorities are wary of citizens from the European Union and the U.S. He had no news about Catholics in the rebel- or Russian-held areas of Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Roman Catholicism’s eastern Ukrainian presence was strongest.
“In a best-case scenario, if the present cease-fire holds and people return, one will have to see how many faithful remain and which Greek-Catholic church buildings can be repaired or rebuilt.”
“If Russia remains in control of the region, it is hard to imagine that Catholic life, whether Greek or Latin, would be allowed to return.”
Russia’s ‘Undeclared War’
The archbishop said that Russia’s “undeclared war” against Ukraine has destabilized a country that has already suffered the “depredation” of domestic and foreign profiteers who “have torn its economic and social fabric limb from limb.”
This instability will worsen the fate of both the Roman and Greek Catholic Churches in the country, he said.
“Without ‘homegrown’ Catholics, and given its strong ethnic ties to Poland and Hungary, it is hard to say how the Latin Church will survive in Ukraine.”
Archbishop Gullickson encouraged Aid to the Church in Need to find ways to help nurture a “vital institutional Catholic presence” in Ukraine.
He said Ukraine is still seeking to repair or remove the “structures of servitude” built under Soviet communism.
“Ukraine’s people are still, today to some extent, deprived of their history, limited to a propagandistic caricature, which has managed to outlive the school texts and history books from the Soviet period.”
The country’s dictionaries still lack spiritual words, he noted. He suggested that projects to promote songs, dances and poetry connected to Christian feasts might help restore Catholic culture.
The Greek-Catholic community, meanwhile, continues to grow, he said.
“Greek-Catholics simply do a better job of evangelizing than do most Orthodox.”
Since 1989, the number of Greek-Catholic priests have increased from about 300 to 3,000. However, many of these are married clergy and face difficulties in supporting their wives and children. Many Roman-Catholic clergy also lack financial support and must spend much time raising funds in Poland or other neighboring countries.
Women religious are also undersupported and lack the resources to support elderly sisters and the education of younger sisters, he said.
Archbishop Gullickson urged more support for both Latin-Catholic and Greek-Catholic clergy, vowed religious and the laity of Ukraine.