Clergy have vital role to play in helping stamp out the fires of Kiev

Orthodox priests pray as they stand between pro-European Union activists and police lines in central Kiev last week (AP)

When the prime minister of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, resigned on Tuesday morning, as his government repealed controversial anti-protest laws, there was hope that an end could at last be in sight to the country’s bitter political feuding. But with parts of Kiev resembling a war zone, and unrest still spreading nationwide, a durable political settlement could still take time. 

Last November, when president Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of a deal with the European Union, citing fears for Ukraine’s trade ties with Russia, he could hardly have expected the angry mass backlash that followed. Two months on, if peace finally returns, it may well owe something to Ukrainian Catholics.

During separate late January meetings with Yanukovich and his opponents, Church leaders offered to act as “mediators and peacemakers”. But they also made it clear where their own sympathies lay. “Our mission is spiritual, not political,” Fr Ihor Yatsiv, spokesman for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, told me. “But we’re concerned for the good of Ukrainians and we believe this good lies with Europe. Being part of Europe has to be more important than preferential gas prices from Moscow.”  

Since the conflict erupted, that conviction has underpinned the stance of Fr Yatsiv’s influential Church, which combines eastern rites with loyalty to Rome. Although Ukraine’s smaller Latin Catholic Church has been more guarded in its response, its leaders too have appealed repeatedly for a peaceful, negotiated outcome.    

Ukraine has long been divided between a predominantly Orthodox east, traditionally looking towards Russia, and a largely Catholic west which feels closer to western countries. This made the 500-clause Association Agreement, establishing a Ukraine-EU free trade zone, crucial to the country’s economic and geopolitical future.    

Yanukovych became president in February 2010, five years after a previous disputed election win was overturned during Ukraine’s pro-western Orange Revolution. But he was never accepted by many Ukrainians, including followers of his main rival, former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed for seven years in October 2011 on alleged fraud charges. The EU criticised Tymoshenko’s imprisonment as politically motivated, and demanded her release as a precondition for the new agreement. When Yanukovych suddenly reneged, it shocked western governments and provoked outrage among pro-western Ukrainians. 

Demonstrators occupied Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, and blockaded government buildings, demanding the resignation of Yanukovych and Azarov. When police moved in to clear the square, now popularly renamed “Euro Maidan”, hundreds were injured and the protests intensified. 

Greek and Latin Catholics make up a tenth of the Ukrainian population of 46 million, compared to around a third traditionally professing Orthodoxy. Greek Catholics, known pejoratively as “Uniates” by Orthodox leaders, were persecuted with particular savagery after their Church was outlawed under Soviet rule in 1946. 

But Orthodox Christians are themselves divided between the main Ukrainian Orthodox Church, linked to Russia’s Moscow Patriarchate, and two smaller Orthodox denominations, the Kiev Patriarchate and Autocephalous Church, which aren’t recognised by Orthodox communities abroad. 

Long before the latest conflict, Catholic leaders had criticised aspects of Yanukovich’s rule, including his failure to hand back Church properties seized under Soviet rule. During a visit to Brussels last March, they backed closer EU links. But EU ties have been opposed by the Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, whose Russian patriarch, Kirill I, came to Kiev to give Yanukovich a blessing at his inauguration four years ago. Not surprisingly, the Moscow-linked Orthodox Church reacted calmly to Yanukovych’s withdrawal from the EU deal. But Greek Catholics shared the public anger, raising fears that the mass protests could acquire a confessional edge. 

Cardinal Lubomir Husar, the Church’s retired leader, addressed the Maidan Square rally, accusing the government of violating
“principles of humanity” and lauding its opponents as “the voice of the nation”. 

The Catholic University in Lviv accused Yanukovych’s government of “sending hired thugs” to “fuel a bloody confrontation” and called for civil disobedience to bring about early elections. Following the government’s orders would be “contrary to human conscience”, the university’s general assembly added, while Yanukovych and his ministers were “choking in their own impunity and ostensible power”. 

Fr Yatsiv, the Greek Catholic spokesman, has insisted his Church’s tough rhetoric has been justified.  Greek Catholic priests have come not just from Kiev, but from Lviv, Donetsk and other towns too, he pointed out. While they’re united behind the protests, they’re not alone. Many Orthodox clergy are “on the same side of the barricade” too. “Not everyone supports the European option,” Fr Yatsiv told me. “But the division isn’t between Catholics and Orthodox. Priests and people from all churches concur that our country needs a fuller democracy, and a government free of corruption which doesn’t abuse its power.”  

The priest could be right up to a point. Ukraine’s smaller Orthodox denominations have also backed the protesters, with the leader
of the Kiev Patriarchate, Filaret Denisenko, calling on Yanukovych to sign the EU agreement. But the head of Ukraine’s Moscow-linked
Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, has also called for dialogue, suggesting his support for Yanukovych may have limits as well.

On January 22, the Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, which Volodymyr leads, said that Ukraine was “on the brink of civil war” and called on both the government and opposition to “recognise their responsibility for maintaining a unified Ukrainian state”. It was one of many urgent appeals from Church leaders at home and abroad since the conflict intensified in mid-January. Yet not all of these have been heard. On January 13, Ukraine’s Greek Catholic archbishop, Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, said he had received a culture ministry letter threatening to outlaw his church again, because of a “systematic disregard for the law” by its clergy with “alleged support from the Church authorities”. 

Meeting the 43-year-old archbishop four days later, culture minister Leonid Novokhatko denied planning “legal action” against the Church and even praised its “peacekeeping role”. But Fr Yatsiv reported that the Church’s official website had now been immobilised by cyber attacks from Russia. The incident occurred on the day new laws criminalised the “slandering” of government officials and banned protest tents and masks. Condemned by the US and EU governments, the laws provoked fury from youthful protesters, who torched vehicles and hurled petrol bombs, and were met with riot police stun grenades and rubber bullets. 

As the violence escalated last week, Archbishop Shevchuk appealed to Ukrainians to “stop the bloodshed in the name of God”, saying that “fear, aggression and anger” would be no help in determining Ukraine’s future. But he also urged the Ukrainian government to “take responsibility for the future” and “listen to the people”. 

The archbishop’s appeal did not prevent the death of two protesters from apparent police bullets in Kiev and the violent occupation of the justice ministry, as well as the seizure of government buildings in other cities.

On Monday, Yanukovych finally agreed to lift some of the contested anti-protest laws and allow an amnesty for jailed demonstrators. He has also offered government posts to the opposition, including the premiership following Azarov’s resignation. 

But the president has refused to resign and hold fresh elections – and that’s what the protesters, led by former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, are still demanding. For now, it remains unclear whether the forces of moderation and compromise will prevail.

Archbishop Petro Malchuk of Kiev-Zhytomyr, vice-president of Ukraine’s Latin Catholic bishops’ conference, has said he is uneasy about the militant attitudes being shown by Greek Catholic leaders and fears the sides have been influenced by strong doses of anti-EU and anti-Russian propaganda. 

Come what may, Ukrainians should be free to “find their own way” and “strive for better things”, he says, without forgetting their country is multi-ethnic and multi-confessional, and embraces both pro-Russian and pro-western tendencies.

“No perfect state system has been invented,” he told me, “but nor has anyone thought up a better system than the western one. So it’s natural that many people here should want to be part of Europe. But all Ukrainians should evaluate the options soberly, since we now face real threats of bloodshed from those interested in provoking tension and violence.”
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (31/1/14)