Ukrainian Catholics fear 'new oppression' after Russian takeover

David Mdzinarishvili | Catholic News Service
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OXFORD, England -- A Ukrainian Catholic priest in Crimea said Church members are alarmed and frightened by the Russian military occupation and fear their communities might be outlawed again if Russian rule becomes permanent.

Father Mykhailo Milchakovskyi, a pastor in Kerch, Ukraine, described the atmosphere as tense because many residents of the town located in the eastern part of Crimea were unsure of their future.

"No one knows what will happen. Many people are trying to sell their homes and move to other parts of Ukraine," Father Milchakovskyi told Catholic News Service March 12.

"Our Church has no legal status in the Russian Federation, so it's uncertain which laws will be applied if Crimea is annexed. We fear our churches will be confiscated and our clergy arrested," the priest said amid tensions over a March 16 referendum on whether the autonomous territory should join Russia or remain in Ukraine. Nearly 97 percent of residents of Crimea voted to join Russia. Following the results, Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed that the region was a part of Russia.

Father Milchakovskyi said the Ukrainian Catholic Church's leader, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, had pledged "prayers and support" if fellow-Catholics "found themselves in danger."

However, he added that his Church feared Russian rule would inflict a "new oppression" on Ukrainian Catholics, whose five communities traditionally make up about 10 percent of the Crimean peninsula's 2 million inhabitants.

"Many have already stopped coming to church, after being branded nationalists and fascists by local provocateurs," Father Milchakovskyi said.

"The Orthodox have always insisted they're dominant here and done everything to make life unpleasant for us. If they're now given a free hand, we don't know whether they'll behave like Christians or follow the same unfriendly policy," he said.

Under Soviet rule, from 1946 to 1989, the Eastern-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed. The strongest members lived their faith clandestinely, while others attended an Orthodox church or no church at all. The government confiscated all Church property, giving some buildings to the Orthodox and putting other buildings to secular uses.

In January, Archbishop Shevchuk said Ukraine's now-ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, had threatened to ban the Ukrainian Catholic Church because of its support for pro-Western opposition protests. However, Leonid Novokhatko, Ukraine's former culture minister, denied that Yanukovych planned to ban the Church.

Father Milchakovskyi said he had been allowed, as a military chaplain, to visit Catholics serving with the Ukrainian naval infantry in Kerch, after their base in the eastern port was blockaded by Russian-backed forces.

He reported that Russian troops were "controlling who and what gets through," and said young recruits now lacked food and medicines.

Ethnic Russians make up 58 percent of the Crimean population, with Ukrainians 24 percent and mostly Muslim Tartars about 12 percent.

In a March 12 statement on his diocesan website, Bishop Bronislaw Bernacki of Odessa-Simferopol criticized the international community for not taking action against Putin.

"The world talks, criticizes Russia and does exactly what Putin expects -- nothing," said Bishop Bernacki.

Before the vote, he predicted the Crimea referendum, which has been rejected as illegal by most foreign governments, would "prove 80 percent support" for the region's annexation by Russia and reflected a "wider policy by Putin," as revealed in a 2008 military campaign against Georgia.

"Cutting off Crimea is only the beginning -- it will then be time for Ukraine's eastern and southern counties, and then perhaps the whole country," the bishop said.

Priest taken from church

Ukrainian Bishop Borys Gudziak of Paris, head of the Ukrainian Church's external relations department, issued a statement March 15 saying Father Mykola Kvych, pastor of the Dormition of the Mother of God Parish in Sevastopol, was taken from his church that morning, "seized by two men in uniform and four men in civilian clothing."

Earlier in the week, Bishop Gudziak said, the Church's leadership had urged Father Kvych and the other priests in Crimea to evacuate their wives and children to mainland Ukraine.

"The priests themselves returned to their parishes to be with their faithful in a time of crisis and moral and physical danger," he said.

Several hours after Father Kvych was taken from the church, the Ukrainian Catholic Church's information service reported he had been freed after questioning, which apparently focused on accusations that he had been organizing anti-Russian riots.

The next day, however, parishioners helped him leave Crimea. He told the church information service that "several unknown individuals" continually rang the doorbell of his apartment, then tried to break in. When they left, he took the chalice and paten he uses for Divine Liturgies and some important documents and left the city.

Father Kvych also said that he spoke to the priests in Yalta and Yevpatoria, who were "now in a safe place. He didn't mention where exactly," the information service said.

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