Catholic patriarch steels Ukraine for war while diplomats seek to breach impasse with Russia

Jewish leader of Ukraine dismisses anti-Semitic incidents as 'provocations' staged by Russia that were blamed on Ukrainian nationalists. Russia continues to claim its forces are not present in Crimea despite eyewitness testimony.

Patriarch Sviatislav Shevchuk
During his official visit to Kiev, Secretary of State John Kerry laid flowers in an act of solidarity and respect for protesters who died during the weeks of strife that led to the downfall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Kerry was joined on March 4 by various religious leaders in laying flowers on Instytutska Street in Kiev, while they also walked along some of the barricades set up by protesters in Maidan Square. The top U.S. diplomat spoke with many of the people who shared their experiences of the last three months in Ukraine, especially during the confrontations of February 18-20 when nearly a hundred innocent people were killed.
 
The leader of Ukraine’s Greek-Catholic Church, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, thanked Kerry for coming to Ukraine and asked for international support for the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian government.  In the presence of leaders of other faiths, Patriarch Shevchuk asked Kerry to note that there is no interfaith or interethnic conflict in Ukraine. Kerry responded,  “Yes, I see it.”
(Secretary John Kerry)
 
Among the other religious leaders was Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich. Formerly from New York, Rabbi Bleich has lived in Ukraine since 1989. Rabbi Bleich thanked Kerry for America’s support for Ukraine. He asked Kerry to consider the idea of moving the upcoming G8 meeting of the world’s leading nations to Kiev in order to “show that you care about the people of Ukraine. Show that you are with them and change that G8 to G7.” According to the rabbi, “The idea was well accepted.”  He added, “The Secretary of State said he liked the idea and his people said they loved it.”
 
“I gave him the official statement of the Jewish community,” Rabbi Bleich declared, following his meeting with Kerry. “We don’t want bloodshed and we don’t want war. We want everything to be resolved diplomatically, through talks. We are coming together saying that we want Ukraine to stay united.” Rabbi Bleich accused Russia of deliberately staging anti-Semitic “provocations” in Crimea in order to justify its invasion of the former Soviet republic that had been part of Ukraine since 1954. It was at a New York press conference on March 4 that Rabbi Bleich compared Russia’s behavior to that of the Nazis prior to the Anschluss invasion of Austria in 1938. “Things may be done by Russians dressing up as Ukrainian nationalists,” he said, adding that it’s “the same way the Nazis did when they wanted to go into Austria and created provocations.”
 
Bleich acknowledged concerns but said the Jewish community is assured that top Ukrainian officials can guarantee their safety. “The Russians are blowing this way, way out of proportion,” he said, referring to the accusations of anti-Semitism among some Ukrainian nationalist factions. Moreover, he said that Ukrainians of all faiths are united in response to the Russian incursion. “There were many differences of opinion throughout the revolution, but today all that is gone,” he said. “We’re faced by an outside threat called Russia. It’s brought everyone together.” 
 
Rabbi Bleich has called upon the U.S. to provide military assistance to Ukraine. While he acknowledged that America is  “war-weary,” he said Ukrainians need “boots on the ground to protect democracy” and to prevent “the cold war from getting hot.”
 
In a statement released to the Ukrainian people, Patriarch Shevchuk said that the church has been with the people throughout the conflict that brought down the former government. As for the conflict with Russia, he said “And it will continue to remain with its people. If, God forbid, we will have to stand together on the battlefield with our soldiers, with our army, the Ukrainian Church, especially the UGCC, is ready to provide pastoral support.”
 
“Every citizen of Ukraine must be prepared to defend his or her independent and sovereign state. The church has always sought to defend peace. The church at all costs tried to prevent bloodshed. Unfortunately, there are already victims in Ukraine, and bloodshed was not prevented. We will continue to use every opportunity to relieve tension in society and avoid casualties.”
 
Patriarch Shevchuk called for all interfaith disputes to be set aside. "We now need to unite and consolidate in order to protect our people and our country. I appeal to all the faithful of the UGCC and to all the Ukrainian people. Our people and our country are currently in danger. We must stand up for our country, to be ready – if necessary – to sacrifice our lives in order to protect the sovereign, free, independent, and unified state.”
 
While acknowledging that Americans are “war-weary,” he said Ukrainians need “boots on the ground to protect democracy” and to prevent “the cold war from getting hot.”
Russia has denied that its troops are in Crimea. Speaking in Madrid, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov said that so-called “self-defense” forces are in control of the strategic peninsula. He again denounced the removal of President Yanukovych. ‘‘There was an armed seizure of power and a legitimately elected president was overthrown. This was a violation of Ukraine’s constitution. If the international community is encouraging those, who are now attempting to rule our great, historical neighbour, then they should realise this sets a very bad and contagious example,’‘ Lavrov said. The troops occupying Crimea entered the area in military vehicles bearing Russian license plates, even while the troops themselves bore no identifying insignia.
 
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, along with the U.S. and Russia, appears to show a preference for diplomatic palaver. “It’s quite clear that what happened in Ukraine was an aggression from Russian side and the Crimea. But now we have to think about a way out, and way out not only about Ukraine, but way out and future of Russia, how Russia will deal what Russia did to Ukraine,” said Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia. However, at the talks currently underway in Paris, Russia was conspicuously absent. Kerry was joined on March 5 by Deshchytsia and UK Foreign Minister Douglas Haig. The US, UK, Russia and Ukraine are signatories of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that brought about the dismantling of Ukraine’s nuclear weapons – which were then the third largest in the world-- in return for assurances from the U.S., Russia, and the U.K. that Ukraine's territorial borders would be respected and defended.


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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