A Russian bid to draw Ukraine away from the European Union and more exclusively into its own economic and political orbit has had its equal and opposite reaction in the EuroMaidan movement: demonstrations against oppressive government and in favor of European values that started in late November of 2013 on a central square [maidÁn] in the capital, Kyiv [Kiev], and have spread to more than half of the provinces of that former Soviet-bloc nation. Remarkably, in a land where members of parliament have been caught on video throwing punches at each other during budget disputes, these popular demonstrations remained peaceful for two full months, until the Berkut (riot police) resorted to violent tactics, beat protestors mercilessly, and killed at least three.
Hanging in the balance is not only the economic fate of independent Ukraine but also its future commitment to fundamental human rights and democratic principles. Without commenting on political issues, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) has constantly and eloquently defended the freedoms of Ukrainian citizens to assemble, to speak their mind, and to choose and practice a religion. Together with other members of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, it has provided pastoral ministry to the demonstrators camped on the city squares, preached the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and offered to mediate between the opposition parties and the government.
In early January 2014 Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture sent a letter to the head of the UGCC, pointing to the presence of Ukrainian Catholic priests on the Maidan as possible grounds for revoking the registration of their Church. Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the UGCC, responded promptly and publicly, defending the Church’s “right to assess the situation in the country, if there are violations of human rights and of the principles of public morality flowing from God’s law and reflected in the social teaching of the Church” [see CWR blog, January 13, 2014, “Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church responds to threats by authorities”]. On Friday, January 17, at the request of the Ministry of Culture, His Beatitude Sviatoslav met with the Minister of Culture of Ukraine, Leonid Mykhaylovich Novokhatko. During their meeting, which was also attended by the head of the governmental Department of Religions and Nationalities and the head of External Relations of the UGCC in Ukraine, reassurances were given that the Ministry does not intend to put any pressure on the UGCC or take any legal actions to stop the activities of its affiliated religious organizations. Appreciation was expressed for the peace-keeping role of the clergy during the protests. His Beatitude said that he hoped that the public authorities have the wisdom not to carry the current socio-political crisis over into the religious sphere.
On January 21, His Beatitude Sviatoslav called on the Ukrainian people to refrain from violence and to stop the bloodshed. In a video message in Ukrainian (posted on YouTube) that was published also as a press release Ukrainian, Russian, and English at the news website of the UGCC, His Beatitude Sviatoslav said:
With great dismay and sadness we witness the events taking place at the moment in Kyiv…. In view of these exceptional circumstances, I would like to appeal to all the faithful of our Church, to the Ukrainian people, and to all people of good will: In the name of God, stop the bloodshed! Violence was never the way to build a free and independent state! Bloodshed will never reconcile hearts or bring a positive outcome.
I appeal to the Ukrainian authorities: Listen to your people, hear them, do not use violence against them or repressive mechanisms!
I appeal to political leaders of our country: Realize your responsibility for the future of your people, the responsibility for the calls and the steps that you offer them today!
I appeal to society, to citizens, members of various NGOs, especially the protestors who are standing on the Maidan: I beg of you, go back to the peaceful nature of the protests. Do not let emotions get the better of you. Neither fear nor aggression nor anger was ever helpful in determining our future.
I appeal to the Ukrainian judges: Listen to the voice of your conscience, remember that there is no justice without truth. Ask yourself why people call you “Your Honor”. Do not tarnish your honor with unjust decisions.
I appeal our episcopate and clergy: Especially at a time like this watch over the souls entrusted to you! Reach their hearts and minds with your words of peace. Proclaim the Gospel of Christ’s Peace!
[Revised English text as published in The Way, Ukrainian Catholic Newspaper of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia (January 26, 2014): 23.]
In his Angelus address on Sunday, January 26, Pope Francis called for prayers for Ukraine, “in particular for those who have lost their lives in the violence of the past days and for their families.” He said that he is praying that the authorities and the opposition movement will engage in constructive dialogue and avoid violence.
For more than a century the UGCC has had its own parishes and hierarchy among communities of Ukrainian Catholic emigrants. These Churches of the “diaspora” have expressed their solidarity with their Mother Church in Ukraine. On January 24 the four Eparchs (bishops of the “eparchies” or dioceses) of the UGCC in Western Europe, who serve the Ukrainian Greek Catholic faithful in Germany/Scandinavia, Great Britain, France/Switzerland/Benelux Countries and Italy/Spain respectively, issued a statement supporting the actions of the UGCC during the recent conflicts in Ukraine. “The Church is not a political organization. However the Church is called to serve society as an autonomous part of it. Her task is to be with the people in service, and especially in suffering,” they said. The Eparchs condemned the killing and torture, recalling the individual responsibility before God of those who resort to such actions. They also called on European governmental and private organizations to be better informed about and more involved in current developments in Ukraine.
The four hierarchs of the UGCC in the United States (Archeparchy of Philadelphia and Eparchies of Stamford, CT, Chicago, IL, and Parma, OH) also issued a statement dated January 19 expressing their “complete confidence and support” for the hierarchs, clergy, religious, and faithful of the UGCC in Ukraine “in their response of offering much needed pastoral care for the brave Ukrainian citizens [who are] voicing their opposition to the suppression of freedoms in today’s society in Ukraine. We share the amazement of the civilized world in observing the harsh and brutal responses of the Ukrainian government to our Church and to people expressing their concerns for the welfare of their neighbors and their nation.” The statement warned that “Ukraine can be regarded as the stage [i.e. arena] for the re-imposition of specific ideologies of control and repression,” and therefore called for solidarity, prayers, and vigilance.
At the request of Archbishop Steven Soroka, last weekend special prayer petitions “for a peaceful end to the tragic events and violence in Ukraine” were included in all Divine Liturgies in the Archeparchy of Philadelphia (which includes UGCC parishes located in eastern PA, NJ, MD, DE, Washington, D.C., and VA). One of the petitions read:
Celebrant: We also pray to the Almighty Lord for the people of Ukraine who are struggling these days to defend their God-given rights and freedom of speech, choice, and religion. Grant them all and especially the leaders of the Ukrainian nation wisdom, good judgment, and discernment to find mutual understanding and respect that would lead to a peaceful resolution of the ongoing conflict, we pray to You, O Lord, and have mercy.
Response: Lord have mercy.