BY GENEVIEVE KOCOUREK
The recent crisis in Ukraine, which has included violence and rioting in Kiev and the Russian annexation of Crimea, has a sub-story that has largely been hidden. The violence that erupted in Kiev to the count of 77 deaths followed three months of peaceful protests opposing then-President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to reject the opportunity for Ukraine to be integrated into the European Union in favor of a deal with Russia.
A display of unprecedented unity among religious leaders in the region univocally supported the concerns of the Ukrainian people. But with the situation in Crimea, fear is in the air over the degree of religious freedom the Ukrainians will continue to have.
The call to prayer has been a common theme in response to the situation in Ukraine, with Pope Francis urging all Christians to pray for a peaceful resolution. Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Catholic Church did likewise, saying the religious leaders of Ukraine will stand with their people, even on the battlefield, but that “the main weapon is prayer.”
During the protests, priests, monks, and sisters were among the people. Religious services were held in tents Maidan, the location of the massive protests in Kiev. When the protests began to get violent in February, four Ukrainian Orthodox monks courageously stood between the line of riot police armed with shields and weapons and the line of protesters, amid the smoke, ash, and debris, calling for peace and prayer at the risk of their lives.
Archbishop Shevchuk also called for protestors to remain peaceful and united with other religious leaders under the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations exhorting the Ukrainian and Russian government leaders to a peaceful resolution and denouncing the Russian occupation.
Potential implications for the religious liberty of Ukrainians are at stake, among the many other concerns in Crimea. According to Fr. Mark Morozowich, a Ukrainian Catholic priest at the Catholic University of America, the Russian actions reminiscent of years past have reminded Ukrainian Christians of the religious persecution under Soviet rule, when they had to worship clandestinely.
Fr. Morozowich, speaking when the annexation of Crimea was looming, said the state of religious freedom in Russia might predict the state of future religious freedom if Russia were to take over parts of Ukraine. “These are the questions we should ask: what freedom do they have?” Fr. Morozowich said. “Are they free to establish their own hierarchy, are they free to use their own languages, are they free to establish their own parishes?”
Looking at the 2012 U.S. State Department report on the state of religious liberty in Russia, the prospects appear questionable. The report states, “Some regional officials used contradictions between federal and local laws and varying interpretations of the law to restrict the activities of minority religious groups.” The report notes incidents of vandalism, harassment, or discrimination against members of minority religious groups and an improper relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the government.
Since the Russian takeover of Crimea, reports have arisen of threats against one of the minority religious groups in Crimea, the Ukrainian Catholic Church. According to the Catholic News Agency, priests have been threatened to leave, while Fr. Mykhola Kvych, who was detained and later forced to leave Crimea, said he was initially threatened with charges of extremism. Thus far, none of the Orthodox or Catholic churches have recalled their priests from Crimea. Fr. Morozowich said further, “The Church in Ukraine is alive and suffering,” a thought that might serve to call all of us to prayer for those who do not share the same freedom of religion.