An Open Letter From Ukraine’s Catholic Primate

His Beatitude Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, writes ‘on the very difficult situation in Ukraine.’

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s Note: The letter has been edited for style.

To the Catholic Episcopal Conferences,

То the World’s Religious and Political Leaders,

To All People of Goodwill:

For nine months, Ukrainians have been on an arduous pilgrimage from post-Soviet fear to freedom and God-given dignity. Traumatized by the 20th-century world wars, brown and red totalitarianism and genocide, they seek a just society and a democratic European future.

With patience, endurance and great human sacrifice, they overcame in February the brutal regime of Victor Yanukovych. This moral triumph was answered in March by Russia’s territorial annexation of Crimea. Now, for months, the country endures foreign supported destabilization, separatism and terrorist activity in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions; in one word: war. Tragically, as became manifest in the criminal shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17, the Ukrainian trial affects the global community.

All of the churches and religious organizations of Ukraine stood together against the violence of the Yanukovych regime, the annexation of Crimea and the division of the country. On the Maidan Square for months, every day and hourly in the night, in common prayer, they insisted on respect of civil rights, non-violence, unity of the country and dialogue. This civic, ecumenical and interreligious harmony and cooperation has been an important source of moral inspiration and social cohesion in Ukraine.

In the annexed Crimea and in the eastern war zone, some of the churches and religious communities have been targeted for discrimination, enduring outright violence. In Crimea, the most exposed have been the Muslim Tatars. The Tatar community as a whole is in daily danger. Some of its leadership has been exiled, barred from their homeland. The existence of the Greek and Roman Catholics ministries, Orthodox parishes of the Kiev Patriarchate and the Jewish community in Crimea has been variously menaced.

In April, violence was instigated in Eastern Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian authorities, some 1,000 people, including international journalists and peace monitors, were kidnapped or detained; dozens were tortured or killed. The anti-terrorist operation, launched by the Ukrainian government, faces a foreign aggression that co-opts local rebels and local and international criminal delinquents. As a result, today there are over 1,000 civilian casualties in the densely populated cities, with the numbers rising by 50 deaths or more daily, not to mention the 298 victims of Flight MH17. The infrastructure of the cities, including roads and bridges, electric substations, coal mines and industrial installations are being destroyed to cripple the economy and future reconstruction that will become the responsibility of the Ukrainian state. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee the warfare that has been brought into the heart of the cities by the so-called separatists.

Amidst the horrors of war, the tiny Ukrainian Greek and Roman Catholic minorities experience oppression on the territories controlled by the “separatists.” Three Catholic priests were kidnapped: Pawel Witek and Wiktor Wąsowicz (Roman Catholic) and Tykhon Kulbaka (Greek Catholic). The later was kept in captivity for 10 days and deprived of medicine he needed. The episcopal residence of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop in Donetsk was robbed and sealed, depriving him of his chancery and all documentation. The cathedral yard was hit by “separatist” rocket fire, damaging the building and windows with shrapnel. The bishop and almost all Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests were forced to leave the environs of Donetsk. Armed representatives of the separatist regime entered the church and desecrated the sanctuary. They “allowed” priests to stay and conduct services but put them on travel restrictions. Terrorists blackmail the clergy by threatening to harm their parishioners.

Most recently, on Saturday, Aug. 16, the small monastery of the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate in Donetsk was seized and violated. The sisters, who generously and humbly have been serving the community and who were on a summer retreat or at summer camps for children outside of Donetsk, cannot return to their home, now being used by the “separatists.”

Protestants are targeted by the pro-Russian terrorist groups and have suffered the gravest violence: Two sons of the pastor of the evangelical church “Metamorphosis,” Alexander Pavlenko, and two deacons of that church, Victor Brodarsky and Vladimir Velichko, were taken from a church service, tortured and killed by the terrorists. Their bodies were exhumed from a mass grave in Sloviansk.

Unfortunately, the beleaguered Ukrainian Catholics, Greek and Roman, faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate and Protestants in the east of Ukraine are further endangered by the rhetoric of the Orthodox leadership in Russia, which is becoming increasingly similar to the propaganda of the Russian political authorities and media.

In recent documents, issued in Moscow at the highest level of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly in a letter to the primates of the Orthodox Churches, Greek Catholics and the Ukrainian Orthodox of the Kiev Patriarchate, disrespectfully called “uniates” and “schismatics,” are defamed. They are held responsible for the military conflict in eastern Ukraine and are accused of generating the warfare, especially the violence against the Orthodox clergy and faithful endured as a result of military operations. Russian Orthodox leaders spread libelous information about the Ukrainian Greek Catholics and other confessions, thereby putting them in danger from the separatist militants who identify themselves as warriors for the Russian Orthodoxy.

We strongly reject these claims and accusations. The Ukrainian military is not structured as a denominational entity. Therefore, chaplains of various denominations serve in the zone of the antiterrorist operation. Chaplains are not permitted to interfere in the life of the local religious communities. Accusations that chaplains of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church have committed acts of violence against members of other churches and religious groups are not true.

The tragedy that Ukraine is experiencing today, due to the military aggression, is a tragedy for all peoples, believers of all faiths and all social groups. Buildings, churches and monasteries of all religious and ethnic groups are being damaged or destroyed. Clergy of all faiths that exercise their pastoral ministry in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and Crimea have suffered, some risking their own lives. Two Orthodox priests who were killed in the region are among more than 1,000 civilians killed during the conflict, and their terrible deaths are not connected with their religious beliefs. They were accidental victims of shelling.

We pray for all the innocent victims and for peace in Ukraine. And our Church is doing everything to bring peace and alleviate the suffering of those affected by this terrible conflict.

Ukraine needs the effective support of the global Christian community and support of all people of goodwill. In a media context rife with propaganda, we ask you to evaluate information critically. We need your prayers, your discernment, your good words and effective deeds. Silence and inaction will lead to further tragedy. The fate of flight MH17 is an example of what may happen if the terrorist activity is allowed to continue.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the major archbishop of Kiev and Halych, is primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.