LVIV, Ukraine — As sobering news emerges of escalating military casualties, civilian deaths and residents of eastern Ukraine on the run, Ukrainians are drawing close to faith and trying to maintain equanimity.
But 20 years of distrust in the central government undermines confidence in Kiev. Skepticism is especially high among the ethnic minorities in southwest Ukraine, including Hungarian Catholics.
Meanwhile, rhetorical clashes between Christian leaders on the Ukrainian and Russian sides demonstrate a simmering collision of worldviews that risks to escalate misunderstanding.
Russian Patriarch Kirill wrote an international appeal on Aug. 18 that insulted the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. In turn, this was answered by Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Major Archbishop Sviatoslov four days later.
Thankfully, Ukraine’s churches are alive with activity: Morning to midnight, people are visiting churches, writing prayer requests, lighting candles, attending Mass and collecting clothes for the poor — or just quietly chatting in pews, as if they’re in a coffee shop with low light and horizontal seating.
State of the Crisis
Ukrainian troops have steadily advanced against pro-Russian combatants in the east, steadily taking back important towns from separatists in the Donbas region, bordering Russia, since early July.
On July 5, the military regained the key town of Slavyansk, kick-starting Ukraine’s military momentum. Fleeing separatists left behind evidence of Russian provisions and a local population increasingly ambivalent about what the rebels offer, reported the Christian Science Monitor. Two large cities, Luhansk and Donetsk, are still controlled by rebels, but the Ukrainian side is rapidly closing in.
But nowhere in Ukraine do you find triumphalism: Military casualties are at least 620, as of Aug. 20. The civilian death toll exceeds 2,150. There are reports of approximately 410,000 refugees and widespread fear that much needed economic, judicial and administrative reforms are going nowhere, as long as government action focuses on insurrection in the east.
The shocking attack on July 20 of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by combatants exemplified “how close this conflict is to being out of control,” one Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest explained. “Most of us still avoid calling it a war.” Instead, most Ukrainians in the western part of the country refer to “terrorists” fomenting insurgency in the east.
Remarkably, there are very few signs of war in the west — no evidence of convoys or displaced people, not even anti-Russian graffiti. Only a few examples of the conflict could be discerned in a week spent traveling across the west: a handful of volunteers collecting donations to provide soldiers with better equipment and several demonstrations, in ethnic minority communities, against calling up reservists as part of a mid-July mobilization.
What was strongly evident were Christian communities, disturbed by the potential impact of long-term conflict, focused on praying problems to an end.
Working for Peace
Lviv, a charming, cosmopolitan city about 40 miles from Poland, is calm, even bubbling with street musicians and more young children than your typical European center.
One of the most joyful stories of the post-communist period is the renaissance of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) and other Byzantine-rite Catholic denominations in the region.
Out of virtual extinction, the UGCC has risen to build new faith communities, reclaim and restore old Church properties and train a talented generation of clergy.
Father Oleh Kindiy, 36, a priest at the Church of Sts. Volodymyr and Olha in Lviv, serves a working-class congregation of 30,000 parishioners. It’s one of the biggest parishes in the city, built from the ground up in the last 23 years.
Father Oleh is a theology professor at Ukrainian Catholic University, as well as a husband and father of three (Greek-Catholic priests can marry before they are ordained).
Discussing national politics with the Register, he suddenly stopped himself: “It is really hard to talk in these terms after Maidan. The spirit of Maidan — collaboration, problem-solving, creating a better society — is still very strong, and there is growing opposition to [President Petro] Poroshenko making deals with oligarchs instead of making real reform.”
According to the priest, improvements can’t be seen in economic life or judicial reform — two major goals of the winter uprising.
He also explained that one of the achievements of the last 10 years, a pro-family policy that awarded benefits for each child born ($1,530 for the first, $3,125 for the second and $6,250 for the third and subsequent children were the rates set in 2008) — and contributed to a dramatic decrease in abortions — is being rolled back as a cost-cutting measure.
About the Ukrainian-Russian crisis, Father Oleh says the conflict is impacting his parishioners.
“I’m hearing a lot of confessions, seeing a lot of anxiety. For older people who went through World War II, all the memories come back, causing a lot of emotion. A woman came to me. She has a 3-month-old baby, and her husband is fighting in the east. What can you do? I listen,” he said with a sigh. “The Church is the kidney of the body, absorbing negativity and trying to offer spiritual, psychological and intellectual ways to comprehend this.”
The priest said the church recently added a volunteer psychologist, “an active believer,” who is helping counsel people in need.
“I’ve been resisting the idea that we are at war, but a colleague, a priest, just said, ‘We’re in it now, and it could get out of control,’” said Father Oleh. “What I hope is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin walks away from it. He can say, ‘Russia will back off, because we don’t want the killing to continue.’ He could be noble. He has that choice.”
And what is the Church’s role? “The Church’s job must be to work for peace,” he said succinctly.
Ukrainian Catholic University
One of the UGCC’s most impressive accomplishments — with extensive support from the Ukrainian-American community — is the establishment of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in 2002, the only Catholic university on territory that comprised the former Soviet Union.
In less than 15 years, the university is already considered one of the nation’s best institutions of higher learning, especially in philosophy and theology, history, religious studies, various catechetical programs, and it has a unique partnership with the Lviv Business School, in which UCU teaches required ethics courses.
UCU professors and students were early participants in the Maidan Square demonstrations from late last November through late February, when protests culminated in the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. Announcing, “The dictator has been deposed!” UCU leadership issued a hopeful public statement on the nation’s future that ends, “We will be the carriers of the values from which a new Ukraine will arise!”
But in August, a few professors showing the near-empty campus to a visitor were grim about what’s happening in the east. “We are just not sure enough about what is happening to comment,” said one, who preferred not to be named.
“Most of us are startled at how fast the goal of ousting Yanukovych turned into war,” explained another. “I think most of Lviv is in denial.”
What emerges quickly in conversations with regular people — around churches, on buses and in parks — is distrust of the government. Although a new president was elected on May 24, people continue to assume the system is largely unaccountable on most levels.
“Something makes no sense about what’s happening in Donbas,” mused Sergiy Bystrov, a young hotel clerk in Lviv. “I know from my service that the military is competent. So why can’t they cut off [separatist] supply lines? Are local officials taking bribes? Kiev needs to figure that out.”
President Poroshenko is not beloved; he’s a billionaire “oligarch” (the oft-heard term for some 100 people who control approximately 80%-85% of the country’s wealth) who supported the three-month Maidan protests in Kiev.
People say he’ll have to prove himself — his independence and capacity for reform — to a country on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of rampant corruption. It is common to hear people ponder what “business interests” are benefiting from the current conflict.
Hungarians in Berehove
Although the Hungarian community, with more than 200,000 people, is not the biggest ethnic minority in Ukraine, it’s probably the best organized.
You can easily function in Berehove without speaking Ukrainian. The community maintains excellent Hungarian-language schools, including one college managed by an active cultural foundation.
This part of Ukraine, known as Transcarpathia, was part of the kingdom of Hungary for about 1,000 years, until 1919, when it was assigned to the newly formed Czechoslovakia as punishment for Hungary’s role in World War I. The Soviet Union annexed it in 1945 and gave it to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic.
Hungarians in Berehove are either Roman Catholics or members of the Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination. The two churches work together well, according to townspeople.
A Reformed Church theology student studying in Hungary, aspiring pastor Judit Saemere, 21, who has Ukrainian and Hungarian citizenship, said, “Honestly, I don’t understand who Ukraine is fighting. In the east, most people speak Russian. Half the country speaks Russian. It’s been like that for a long time. All of a sudden, we have a war between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers? It makes no sense,” she said.
“We Hungarians are willing to live in Ukraine. We’re willing to work here, but fight their [Ukrainian] wars? No,” she said, shaking her head. Judit’s half-brother, Istvan, is a Catholic priest in Esztergom, Hungary.
Laszlo Brenzovics, an elected local official and Hungarian community leader, spoke to the Register on his way to a demonstration where locals were protesting new conscription orders of all men under age 50 with prior military service.
“Ukraine has a kind of hybrid war, not a real war, against Russia. It is occurring on a small local territory, not across the whole country. People here think this local conflict should be solved by officials, by professional soldiers,” said Brenzovics.
He said another problem is that the Ukrainian military was “degraded” over the last 20 years, so it does not have the tools it needs — which makes people skeptical that the army can properly absorb the reserves.
“This situation could just be solved … with peace,” the official said.
Christian leaders appear to be seeking balance between assigning blame for violence and defusing the situation.
On Aug. 17, UGCC Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk asked for special prayers for the Church in Donetsk and Luhansk, which, he said, “is experiencing a martyrdom,” clearly describing Ukrainian Christians as victims.
The Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops of Ukraine issued a public statement on Aug. 11 describing the “emergency conditions” facing the country that require “special prayer,” including “encroachments on the part of neighbors, internal strife and military operations in the country.” (Despite these serious problems, the statement hopes for “quick stabilization” — much like many others in Ukraine do.)
Nine leaders of the evangelical Protestant churches of Ukraine issued an appeal on July 8 for help from the international community to end religious persecution in Donetsk and Luhansk: “Targeted attacks by armed militants on evangelicals involve kidnapping, beating, torture, threats of death, assaults at the places of prayer assemblies, prayer houses, rehabilitation centers and other places.”
In early June, an evangelical pastor and his two adult sons, together with two other ministers from the Church of the Transfiguration in Sloviansk, were kidnapped and murdered.
Yet the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in Moscow has a very different perspective on what the conflict at the Ukrainian-Russian border represents.
Patriarch Kirill sent a letter to the United Nations, Council of Europe and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe regarding the persecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), whose faithful are certainly suffering as a result of armed combat, which kills believers and destroys churches. It is the largest Christian church in Ukraine.
But what outraged Ukrainian Greek Catholics was a phrase in the letter singling out “attempts of the uniates and schismatics to do harm” to the UOC. The terms the patriarch used are pejorative references to the Greek Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The UGCC’s major archbishop replied, “Russian Orthodox leaders spread libelous information about Greek Catholics and other confessions, thereby putting them in danger from the separatist militants who identify themselves as warriors for Russian Orthodoxy.”
Meanwhile, a new leader for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was sworn in on Aug. 17. Metropolitan Onufry Berezovsky comes from a community on Ukraine’s border with Romania that has been protesting the war in the east. This summer, before his selection, he publicly made the point that most Orthodox Ukrainians living in the east want to live in a united, independent Ukraine.
In addition, a synod of Ukraine’s Orthodox leadership in late June concluded, “Our Church unites people of different languages and cultures. Members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church live in the east, west, north and south of Ukraine. We do not divide our flock on political, national or social grounds. We are one in Christ.’
So even within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church a more tempered approach is evident.
At 10pm on a Friday night in Lviv, people are still flowing in and out of Sts. Peter and Paul Garrison Church, listening to classical music, writing prayer requests and kneeling before dramatic icons.
It’s a beautifully sacred space built by Jesuits in 1630, closed for 65 years, abused as a communist book depository and then reopened by the UGCC in 2011.
Since the church is dedicated to Ukraine’s armed forces and chaplains, its priests have decided to keep it open late. Although dilapidated — chunks of the plaster balcony have collapsed, and “danger” signs should be posted in some side altars — the “Jesuit Church,” as it is called, overflows with holiness.
As I left the church with a Ukrainian seminarian, he whispered, “You want to know what they’re praying [for]? ‘Deliver us, dear Lord, from this war.’ We’re all begging for God’s mercy. Or we should be.”
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington, where he contributes to Foreign Affairs magazine.
He traveled to Ukraine this summer.