The Ukrainian government is cracking down on the country’s Greek Catholic church (UGCC) because they are backing government protesters after President Viktor Yanukovich withdrew from a European Union trade deal. The Greek Catholic leaders compare it to the oppression they faced in the Soviet Union.
“Our church has always been true and will remain so for the future mission that Christ the Savior entrusted, despite all the threats,” said Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, major archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
“For the first time (since) Ukraine’s independence, we are hearing threats that the church could be banned in a court action. … We thought the time of repression had passed,” he said.
When communists took over Russia in the early 20th century, the church was forced underground. Stalin liquidated the UGCC after World War II, and people were sent to the gulags if they did not embrace the Russian Orthodox Church. Pope John Paul II later beatified those who died.
Protesters have occupied Kiev’s central square since they rejected the EU deal in favor of a stronger trade deal with Russia in early December. The Church set up tents where people could pray, confess, or baptize their child. On December 11, they lead the protest in a morning prayer and the police force withdrew. The church wants to make sure there are no human rights violations.
Culture Minister Leonid Novokhatko said they did not talk about shutting down the church, but cited Article 21, which says religious services must be performed in a church.
“This is not about any attempt to close the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church,” Novokhatko told the Ukrinform news agency Jan. 14. “To talk of closing any church in Ukraine in modern conditions would be completely absurd.”
Yanukovich released a statement and said the law needs to be changed.
“People should have the right to pray where they wish,” Yanukovych said, according to the presidential press service.
“We need to relax the legislation requirements and ensure believers have an opportunity to pray where they wish.”
However, there are many people who are uneasy and do not believe the government will leave them alone.
“More than 20 years after independence and 25 years since our church emerged from the underground, we did not imagine someone could take it into their heads to resort to methods compromised long ago,” the three Ukrainian Catholic bishops wrote to Archbishop Shevchuk.
“We cannot accept that the sad era of persecuting churches and believing people, condemned by history, could be repeated in a free Ukraine,” they wrote.