KIEV, Ukraine — The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church issued a statement Feb. 28 praying for the people of Crimea and appealing for the unity of Ukraine, as Russia has reportedly deployed troops in the peninsula.
“The entire family of the UGCC faithful pleads to the compassionate Lord for his protection and assistance to peacefully overcome the deteriorating situation in Crimea and that the unity of our country might be preserved,” said Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halyc.
Earlier that day, armed men in unmarked military uniforms took control of airports in Crimea, as well as the autonomous republic’s parliament building and state telecommunications and television centers. Flights from Crimean airports have been grounded.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that Russia has flown hundreds, or even thousands, of troops into Crimea.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said any of his country’s military movements in Crimea are “within the framework” of long-standing agreements between Moscow and Kiev; Russia’s Black Sea fleet has a base at the Crimean city of Sevastopol.
Oleksander Turchynov, Ukraine’s acting president, accused Russia of deploying its troops in Crimea, trying to provoke armed conflict.
“The UGCC faithful pray for the Krym exarchate and for the preservation of the unity of Ukraine,” said a statement from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
“In these days, we pray for peace and security for all residents of the Crimean peninsula, especially the clergy and laity of our Krym exarchate.”
The Krym exarchate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was established only two weeks ago, on Feb. 13. It was split from the exarchate of Odessa and serves the Ukrainian Catholics in Crimea.
These developments in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church come among profound political transition in the nation.
Protests in Kiev began in November, when the government announced it would not sign a major economic partnership agreement with the European Union, in favor of a $15-billion bailout agreement with Russia. Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets of Kiev, at times occupying government buildings.
Protests continued through February, until more than 80 people were killed during protests at Maidan.
On Feb. 21, Viktor Yanukovych, then the president of Ukraine, fled the capital; the next day, parliament voted to remove him from power. Turchynov was appointed acting president Feb. 23 by the legislature.
Turchyov has already announced his desire to strengthen ties with the European Union and formed a government Feb. 27, with Arseniy Yatsenyuk appointed as prime minister. Elections have been scheduled for May.
Ukraine’s acting president quickly warned against the dangers of separatism, a risk from the majority-Russian areas of eastern Ukraine, particularly Crimea.
Crimea is a southern peninsula of Ukraine, where nearly 60% of the population is ethnically Russian, and more than 50% of the population speak Russian as their first language.
The territory was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 under the Soviet Union.
On Feb. 27, armed men raised a Russian flag over the Crimean parliament without opposition, and there had been reports of prior clashes of ethnic Russians with Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians on the peninsula.
On Feb. 28, U.S. President Barack Obama stated, “We are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine. Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties — and a military facility in Crimea. But any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing.
“The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
On March 1, Russia’s upper house of parliament voted unanimously to approve Russian military forces in Ukraine, after a request from Russian President Vladimir Putin seeking to normalize the “extraordinary situation in Ukraine.”
Turchynov stated on his party’s Twitter account that the nation “perceive(s) Russia's actions as direct aggression towards the sovereignty of Ukraine.”