by Jay Chin
As tensions rise between the pro-European Ukrainian populace and the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, Christians have continuously called for peace and have provided sanctuary and relief for protesters throughout these weeks of violence.
The Ukraine is a nation in the midst of an identity crisis. The country is divided between ethnic Ukrainians, mostly concentrated in the eastern part of the country, and ethnic Russians, found in the west. There has been an influx of Russian culture for the last 250 years, beginning with Catherine the Great’s conquest of Ukrainian lands and continuing up to the fall of the Soviet Union. The current president, Viktor Yanukovych, ethnically Russian, ended negotiations to bring the nation into the European Union and instead chose to accept $15 billion from Russia’s president Vladimir Putin back in November of last year. This has led ethnic Ukrainians, who wish to break away from Russia definitely, to stage a series of protests, not only expressing grievances over Yanukovych’s foreign policies, but also the manner in which he runs the nation, calling him a corrupt autocrat. President Yanukovych, in turn, has passed laws limiting the extent to which they can protest. And this led to the current pandemonium that broke out mid-January.
Christendom in the Ukraine has a complicated history as well. It has been divided between those who support communion with Rome and those who support union with the Orthodox community since the Union of Brest in 1596, when the Ukrainian Church became the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The reason for the switch of jurisdictions was due to the extent of Polish Orthodox dominance over the Church, which many saw as unjust. Those who nevertheless supported Orthodoxy existed as an Exarchate under the Moscow Patriarchate until 1992 and it is now the only church in full communion with Eastern Orthodoxy. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was banned by the Soviet Union in 1948 and only existed as a clandestine organization, with its member persecuted and killed in several instances, until 1989. There are also the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, founded in 1921 in response to the downfall of the Russian Empire, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, which was founded in 1922 as a response to the Orthodox Church’s desire to become autocephalous.
The Greek Catholic Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk has been extremely vocal, saying that it is the role of the clergy to be present during the protests to serve those who have historically been oppressed. He expressed this a month after his church was threatened with the termination of official state recognition. Kiev Patriarch Filaret Denisenko urged Yanukovych to sign the European Union agreement. Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan too has called for peace; but he has been quieter, for his ties to the Moscow Patriarchate put him in a more difficult situation.
The Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which includes not just Byzantine Christians but Latin Rite Catholics and Protestants, released a joint statement in which they urged all Ukrainians to “recognize their responsibility for maintaining a unified Ukrainian state.” They emphasized the need to look beyond what divides the citizens, continuing, “It is necessary to demonstrate brotherly and sisterly love for fellow citizens, despite their origin, language, or religion. Incitement to hatred due to ethnic and religious differences is unacceptable.”
Images have surfaced on the Internet demonstrating that the clergy has kept to its word in regards to its people. They have offered the sacraments, medical aid and sanctuary since the day the violence began. A priest who identified himself as Fr. Matthew told Catholic News Service of how the Ukrainian authorities destroyed a makeshift chapel, shot a man in front of a cathedral and had started ramming the doors of a church to arrest resting protesters. “In the name of God, we condemn violence, ruthlessness and the ignoring of human rights and the will of the nation,” said Archbishop Siyatoslav last Wednesday.
In most recent events, protesters have asserted their authority in Kiev. Parliament has now begun passing decrees to meet their demands. The most significant motion passed thus far is the release of Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s opposition rival, who was arrested in 2011 on the basis of corruption of office. The president fled Kiev at an unknown point between February 21st and 22nd. A presidential election has been called for on May 25. An interim prime minister is expected to be installed by Tuesday to overlook the administrative affairs until the elections. The casualties have been many, with the death toll up to 82 according to the Health Ministry and over 100 according to protesters.