Ukrainian Catholic Church accuses government of Soviet-era repression

CNS photo/Vasily Fedosenko, Reuters

KIEV, Ukraine (CNS) -- The Ukrainian Catholic Church has accused the government of Soviet-style repression after it was threatened with new restrictions for backing demonstrators protesting the country's withdrawal from a deal with the European 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.

The 43-year-old church leader spoke at a Jan. 13 Kiev news conference after receiving a letter from the Ukrainian Culture Ministry complaining of a "systematic disregard for the law by some priests" with "alleged support from the church authorities."

Culture Minister Leonid Novokhatko said the letter, signed by his deputy, Tymophy Kokhan, "contained no requirements or threats," but only cited Ukraine's Law on Freedom of Conscience. Article 21 restricts religious services, unless otherwise authorized, to religious buildings, places of pilgrimage, private homes and cemeteries and, despite that, Ukrainian Catholics and other Christians have erected "prayer tents" at the demonstration sites.

"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."

Controversy over the letter followed a Jan. 12 Kiev rally by 50,000 opponents of the president in the first major action of 2014, a day after at least 10 were injured by baton-wielding police during a smaller protest outside a court in the capital.

In November and December, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which combines the Byzantine liturgy with loyalty to Rome, backed protests against President Viktor Yanukovich after his late November withdrawal from a landmark deal with the European Union. On Dec. 11, members of the permanent synod of the Ukrainian Catholic Church went to Kiev's Independence Square to lead morning prayer, and -- at about 10:30 a.m. -- fear of a violent crackdown gave way to cheers as the police withdrew.

Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate, who also backed opposition protests, said Jan. 13 he had not received any government letter and had given his priests "direct orders" not to "interfere in politics."

Ukrainian Catholic bishops in neighboring Poland said Jan. 14 they felt "shock and disbelief" that "organs of the state power" were "threatening to repeat the scenario of 1946," when the Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed by the Soviet regime.

"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. 

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