Washington D.C., Mar 12, 2020 / 10:10 am (CNA).- A Ukrainian Catholic bishop has urged Christians not to forget their suffering brethren in that country. With global attention focused on the coronavirus outbreak, Bishop Stepan Sus said Christians in Ukraine are still enduring a years-long war with no end in sight.
“Very often Ukraine is presented to the world as a country which lives in corruption, but nobody is speaking about of our suffering, of our wounds,” said Bishop Sus, a curial bishop of the Ukranian Greek-Catholic Church’s Major Archeparchy of Kyiv-Halyč, on Wednesday to CNA.
“Somebody is killed every day” in the conflict, he said, and war has displaced more than two million people in east Ukraine.
“There are so many things that distract our attention,” Kent Hill, co-founder and senior fellow for Eurasia, Middle East, and Islam at the Religious Freedom Institute, told CNA on Wednesday in a joint interview with the bishop.
“And now with the Coronavirus, it’s very easy for the West, even committed Christians, to lose interest or knowledge about what’s going on there [in Ukraine]. And that’s very dangerous for the Christians there,” he said.
“Once it becomes obvious to the Russians that nobody’s paying attention, they have a freer hand.”
As many as 14,000 are estimated to have died from the conflict between Ukraine and forces of Russia and Russian-backed separatists that began in 2014. While the country was considering joining NATO and the European Union, Russia annexed and occupied Crimea and Russian-backed separatists started an armed conflict in the Donbas region on the eastern border, which continues to this day.
Hill spoke with CNA during the U.S. visit of Bishop Sus, who is the world’s youngest Catholic bishop and was consecrated in January.
The world, Sus told CNA, has “stopped speaking about the Crimea situation, how the people are persecuted there on their religious grounds,” he said, as well as the conflict in Donbas.
“When the world doesn’t listen to our voice,” he said, Ukrainians are asking residents of powerful countries like the United States to listen.
The bishop spoke with CNA before attending a briefing at the U.S. Capitol. Legislation that he and others are advocating for is the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act, introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in the Senate and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) in the House. The bill requires the president to consider religious freedom abuses in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.
Under the legislation, the U.S. could better identify religious oppression in the conflict territories and enforce practical consequences, such as the denial of visas to those complicit in abuses. The bill also says that the President must consider the abuses in occupied parts of Ukraine when weighing a “country of particular concern” (CPC) designation for Russia.
The CPC designation is reserved for the countries with the worst records on religious freedom, where abuses are serious and ongoing and the government is either complicit, powerless, or refuses to stop them. The designation carries with it a set of diplomatic or punitive tools the U.S. can use to pressure other countries to put a stop to religious persecution.
A foreign country occupying a territory, Sus said, is “responsible for all human rights and religious things in those territories.”
According to Alexander Kuzma, chief development officer for the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation who accompanied Bishop Sus on his U.S. trip, the situation for minority religions in Russian-occupied territories is grim.
Indigenous Crimean Tartars, along with Ukrainian Catholics and members of the two autocephalous Orthodox churches, are being forced out of the areas. Others have been imprisoned and tortured.
The religious dimensions to the conflict must be considered, Bishop Sus said. The Russian Orthodox Church has been either silent or supportive of Russian aggression, and has opposed independent Orthodox churches in Ukraine.
The Orthodox Church in the Ukraine, with its metropolitan see in Kiev, was historically under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow, but, when Ukranian Orthodox appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for independent recognition, it sparked a conflict between the two patriarchs, resulting in Moscow severing canonical communion with Constantinople in October, 2018.
Moscow remains opposed Constantinople’s plan for an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, mean to bring into communion two other independent Orthodox churches in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
In Russian-occupied areas, the Russian Orthodox Church is now the established Church where before, in Donbas, “there was quite a vibrant network of Byzantine Catholic churches” that was growing before the conflict, Kuzma said. After the occupying forces entered, however, there is now just a “one church need apply” policy.
“The utter hostility to minority religions is very reminiscent of the communist period,” Hill told CNA of Russia’s treatment of religion. “And as bad as it is in Russia, in some ways—looking at what’s happened in Crimea and the Donbas—it seems to be, if anything, worse.”
Ukraine is fighting a “hybrid war” of both military and disinformation campaigns, Bishop Sus said, where Russia tries to promote the idea of “Russkiy mir,” or a “Russian world” that includes Russian-speaking areas once part of the Russian empire and the former Soviet Union. The Crimea and the Donbas are purportedly considered to be part of this “world.”
That idea, Bishop Sus said, is “so dangerous, because you can lose your identity, your dignity, truth, and everything on which we are building democracy and human rights.”
Yet the Russian Orthodox Church “feels like they should be cheerleading for the war effort,” Kuzma said.
Rather, Sus said, the Church should be an “ambassador of peace, not only for Ukraine but also other countries” including Russia’s “awful and dangerous” acts in Syria, Georgia, and Moldova.
While the six-year conflict drags on with no immediate end in sight, Bishop Sus is trying to bind up the country’s wounds of war—and preparing for eventual reconciliation whenever the war ends. He has been a military chaplain for the past 16 years, so he has already ministered to war veterans and their families.
“Now we try just to rebuild the bridges which were broken, destroyed by the war,” he said.
As chaplain at Sts. Peter and Paul church in Lviv, the military garrison church, the bishop has already conducted 94 funerals for soldiers from west Ukraine who have died in the conflict.
He is also tending to soldiers wounded in the conflict, particularly those who suffer the psychological damage of war. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), domestic violence, thoughts of suicide, and marginalization all haunt these veterans.
“Inside of soldiers and their minds, it [the war] will still continue,” he said.
His mission is also about “bringing the disabled back from the margins of society, into the center,” Kuzma said, “and making them feel wholly embraced.”
The Church has also ministered to refugees fleeing the conflict.
“There has not been a refugee crisis,” Kuzma said, as the rest of Ukraine has accepted those displaced in the Donbas. “While we’re passionately Catholic, we’re also passionately ecumenical,” he said, and the desire to honor the freedom of religion of different religious groups in the rest of Ukraine “has actually unified the country against this foreign aggression.”
More than two million Ukrainians have fled the war in the east, and many children are now orphans.
The Church has been quite active, Bishop Sus said, creating accommodations for migrants, and caring for orphans and families who have lost loved ones. Students of Ukraine’s Catholic university travel to the east and help rebuild houses destroyed by the war, and the Church has organized summer and winter camps for children in the “grayzone” where the conflict is part of daily life.
All these efforts help bring Ukrainian’s from the east and west together, despite any language barriers between the Russian-speaking residents of the east and western Ukrainian-speakers.
“We cannot heal all these wounds of the war,” Bishop Sus said, nor can the Church “change the situation.” However, he added, “we can do something to stop that” and “try to turn back the peace to old people in Ukraine.”
“We wanted to provide the dialogue with our own people,” he said. “We cannot provide the dialogue with the separatists and the Russian soldiers” as they “have to leave” the territory.
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