The democratically-elected government of Ukraine appears to be reverting to Soviet-era tactics in the current environment in which massive protests have been unleashed in Kyiv and other cities in opposition and in favor of closer ties to the European Union. Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych threatened to ban the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, thus prohibiting it from operating legally in the country. The Ministry of Culture of the eastern European nation released a statement that cited “systematic disregard for the law by some priests” at the Euromaidan protests that began in November 2013 at Independence Square – the Maidan Nezalezhnosti.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who leads the Eastern rite church that is in communion with Pope Francis, said that while the Church does not participate in political events, it “cannot stay apart when faithful ask for spiritual care.” He leads the largest of the churches that conform to the eastern rites of the Catholic Church. Said the archbishop, “Our Church has always been true and will remain so for the future mission that Christ the Savior entrusted, despite all the threats.” He also added in a January 13 statement, “We thought that the time of repression has passed, but letters like these give doubts. We are not ashamed of our presence on the Maidan and will remain there.”
The letter has shocked Catholics in Ukraine since the last time that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was removed from the register of permitted churches was 1946 during Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s persecution of Catholics throughout the Soviet bloc. The UGCC went underground for the next 40 years and slowly re-emerged following the fall of the Soviet Union. During the communist era, UGCC priests and bishops were commanded to leave the Catholic Church for the Soviet-controlled Orthodox Church or face imprisonment. Many refused and were then imprisoned and tortured. Bishop Theodore Romzha, a bishop of the Ruthenian Greek Orthodox Church in Ukraine, for example, was murdered by lethal injection in a hospital in 1946 after he was nearly killed under orders of the communists by a truck that smashed into the cart he was travelling in.
It was on January 6, when Ukrainians of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church celebrate the birth and the baptism of Jesus Christ, that Archbishop Shevchuk received the letter from President Yanukovych about the alleged “systematic disregard for the law by some priests on Independence Square, allegedly supported UGCC authorities." According to the ministry of culture, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church violated the law that upholds both freedom of conscience and religious organizations when it was involved in religious activity at Maidan Square in December 2013 and during the first few days of January 2014.
(Protesters take shelter in Ukrainian church)
According to the RISU news service of Ukraine, it is not known whether similar letters were received by other churches or religious organizations. Most Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians belonging to any of the three distinct hierarchies, one of which answers directly to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch in Moscow.
However, the Maidan protests have proven to encourage good ecumenical relations between the various churches. Ecumenical prayers have brought together representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Roman Catholics, Lutherans and some Baptists. Lutheran Pastor Ralph Huska, who leads St. Catherine's German Lutheran Church on Lutheran Street near Maidan Square, was among religious leaders who placed themselves between the ranks of Ukrainian police and troops on one side and protesters on the other. “The church welcomes everyone. We have no political or party affiliation, but we strongly oppose violence and promote peace. That is why the church is ready to accept anyone who seeks help. Do not think this won’t apply to you personally – it is impossible to know when and who will need support,” said Pastor Huska in an interview with RISU.
Christians in Maidan Square have offered hot food and drink to police and troops. In some cases, the commanding officers of the security forces allowed their men to accept.
Archbishop Shevchuk has also condemned violent attacks by security forces on protesters in western Ukraine. “We condemn the violence used by the law enforcement officers to civilians,” adding, “We must not respond with violence to violence.”
“I want to express my solidarity with the youth and with our citizens who are not indifferent to the fate of the country and who are actively displaying their positions,” the leader of the UGCC said in an earlier statement. “We see that hundreds of thousands of people in various cities and towns in Ukraine and the world took to the streets.”
Cardinal Lubomyr Husar also praised the youthful Ukrainian protesters who repudiate closer economic and other ties to neighboring Russia. He said that “the government has driven us over the edge. The nation feels this very, very strongly, is fired up – the people have been mobilized to support their fundamental interests, to support their freedom.”
Some protestors are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, a perceived ally of Moscow, while they also condemn President Yanukovych.