Catholic Church in Ukraine Faces Extermination, Bishops Say

The bishops said that the Church in Ukraine could be facing severe repression and may once again be forced underground, as in the days of the Soviet Union.

Archbishop Borys Gudziak, archeparch of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia
Archbishop Borys Gudziak, archeparch of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia (photo: Matt Cashore / Notre Dame de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture via CNA)

The Catholic Church in Ukraine will face extermination if the Russian invasion is successful, leading Ukrainian Catholic bishops told CNA this week.

The bishops spoke with CNA after a panel discussion of Ukrainian faith leaders titled “Faith Under Fire in Russia’s War on Ukraine” hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

Though Ukraine is majority Eastern Orthodox, there are nearly 5 million Catholics in the country, according to a 2019 State Department study. The bishops said that the Church in Ukraine could be facing severe repression and may once again be forced underground, as in the days of the Soviet Union.

Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, told CNA that there “are many, many Catholics that are dying every day” and that “the danger for Catholics is particular in Ukraine.”

Under Russian occupation, Archbishop Gudziak said that the Church “is eliminated as a visible body.”

“If the repression lasts a long time,” he added, “basically the Church is extinguished.”

Archbishop Gudziak emphasized the danger Ukrainian Catholics are facing by pointing to the repression already present in Russia. He said that though there are half a million Ukrainian Catholics in Russia, “there’s no such thing” as a “legally registered Ukrainian Catholic parish” in Russia.

“In the U.S., we have 50,000 faithful, and we have 200 parishes and four dioceses,” Archbishop Gudziak said. “In Russia, there’s 10 times as many, [yet] we are not allowed to legally have a single Ukrainian Catholic parish.” 

Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Vitaliy Kryvytskyi of Kyiv–Zhytomyr (left) and his secretary Father Alex Guevara speak with CNA after a panel discussion titled "Faith Under Fire in Russia’s War on Ukraine" at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., Oct. 30, 2023. Credit: Peter Pinedo/CNA

Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Vitaliy Kryvytskyi of Kyiv-Zhytomyr (left) and his secretary, Father Alex Guevara, speak with CNA after a panel discussion Oct. 30. | Peter Pinedo/CNA

Speaking through his secretary, Father Alex Guevara, Bishop Vitaliy Kryvytskyi of Kyiv-Zhytomyr told CNA that the Russian government has imposed control over religious organizations in its territories and that an even worse fate can be expected for the Catholic Church in Ukraine if Russia wins the war.

“When we asked the priests and ministers in Belarus and Russia why they don’t stand against this war,” Bishop Kryvytskyi explained, “they say: ‘You don’t understand us because you’ve already forgotten what it’s like to live in the Soviet Union.”

Under the Soviet Union, which existed from 1922 to 1991, organized religion was strictly forbidden and religious leaders were sent to prison camps and tortured. Millions of Christians were executed specifically because of their faith.

“We don’t have to guess what’s at stake; we’ve all lived the times of the Soviet Union,” Bishop Kryvytskyi said. “What will happen, if the Russian Federation enters our territories and continues entering our territories, is going to be practically the same thing that was before, during the Soviet Union.”

Russian forces have targeted hundreds of religious sites in Ukraine, according to the Institute for Religious Freedom (IRF).

IRF released a report in March that said “at least” 494 religious buildings, theological institutions and holy sites were “wholly destroyed, damaged, or looted by the Russian military.”

Another IRF report released in 2022 said that since the start of the war, priests and other religious leaders in Russian-occupied territories were “tortured and killed,” while the “spiritual heritage” of Ukraine was being targeted by Russian missile attacks, shelling and looting of religious buildings “without justification by military necessity.”

While the Russian Orthodox Church has organized humanitarian aid for impacted regions, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Christian Church in Russia, has given his support for the war.

Voices of dissent, even from Orthodox religious leaders, have been quickly quashed. As recently as Oct. 25, Russian authorities shut down Holy Trinity parish in the occupied Ukrainian town of Irpen, after the church unanimously voted to stay a part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, according to a press release by the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. 

Along with a delegation of several religious leaders from the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, Bishop Kryvytskyi came to the U.S. for an 11-day trip to share what he called the harsh “truth” people of faith are facing amid the Ukraine war.

Bishop Kryvytskyi said that he wants the faithful in America to know the truth about the war and its impact on the Church.

“For me and for many other parishioners and faithful, this war was like a wake-up alarm,” he added. “Christ says that you don’t know the day or the hour when the Son of Man will come; in our case, that’s the reality of every day.”

“These wounds, this pain is what we encounter during our pastoral work every day,” Bishop Kryvytskyi said. 

“My message today for the Americans is that Christ says: You will know the truth and the truth will set you free. I invite everyone to know this truth about the Russian aggression in Ukraine and together in Christ reach the victory over evil.”

A year and a half after Russia first invaded Ukraine, the Vatican continues to call for an end to the hostilities between the two countries. 

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s secretary of state, expressed support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan that was being discussed at an international conference in Malta in October.

According to reporting by Vatican News, Cardinal Parolin said the peace talks are “a commendable effort, one worthy of support not only because it is aimed at offering a concrete response to various types of damage caused by the war, but also because it encourages us not to consider armed confrontation as an unavoidable tool for resolving conflicts.”

Cardinal Parolin said the Holy See is especially committed to promoting peace talks focused on “resolving humanitarian issues, such as food security and preservation of the natural environment” and that the Vatican would “continue its efforts aimed at alleviating the sufferings of the Ukrainian people and the return of prisoners and children to Ukraine.” 

An apartment building stands damaged after a Russian attack in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

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