In the midst of ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine, a Roman Catholic priest from Poland who was kidnapped May 27 by separatists in the city of Donetsk has been released.
Father Pawel Vitka says he was accused of being a spy by separatists affiliated with the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Fr. Vitka, who works in Kazakhstan but was visiting a fellow priest in Ukraine at the time, was freed after 24 hours in captivity.
“Tuesday morning I was praying with a rosary outside the DPR administration building,” Fr. Vitka told Catholic News Agency on the day of his release. “They asked to see my documents and I explained that I didn’t have them on me at the moment.”
Local, pro-Russian separatist forces took control of the Donetsk regional state administration building in early April and declared the establishment of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which has since been running much of its operations from that building.
“I told them that I was a priest,” Fr. Vitka continued, “but they said that many people have claimed to be priests recently and that perhaps I was actually a spy. I told the main man that it’s very easy to check in the Roman Catholic office of Ukraine, but I saw on his face that he wasn’t going to check.”
The separatists in Donetsk and in Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine after referendums held May 11, but these have been recognized neither by Western nations nor Kyiv.
Fr. Vitka described being left for two hours with two separatists, one of whom beat him on the knee.
“I was scared in that moment when he hit me, as it was clear that he really knew how to hit.”
According to Fr. Vitka, the two men proceeded to blindfold him, bind his legs and hands, and put him in the trunk of a car before driving off.
“I thought they were driving to the forest, where a grave was already waiting for me.”
In fact they drove Fr. Vitka to the former Security Service of Ukraine building in Donetsk, which is also occupied by DPR separatists, and where he remained for the duration of his captivity.
“I was lying on a cement floor, just lying there and praying, lying and praying,” Fr. Vitka explained. “Sometimes they came to check to see if I was alive.”
They brought him food and debated whether they should untie his hands, or feed him themselves.
“They freed my hands, but threatened that if I tried to free my legs, they would hurt me.”
“In the morning, I heard that other people who were arrested got food, but they didn’t feed me, so I thought that it was the end.”
“During that time, I was praying a rosary for the souls of the relatives of the separatists in purgatory. I promised that I would celebrate three Masses for their souls if I would still be alive. Then one of them came and welcomed me to join them for breakfast. I went with them and they became very sweet.”
“While we were eating,” Fr. Vitka continued, “Ukrainian air forces flew over the building, so we moved downstairs. When the plane flew over, one of the men – the one who looked like he was ready to kill me the day before if someone had only given him a weapon – handed me his helmet and said, ‘Father, take it, we need somebody to stay alive and pray for peace.’”
The priest commented that “war is the devil’s creation, but people remain people. People have a lot of bad things inside them, but also a lot of good.”
Later that day, May 28, Poland’s consul general in Donetsk, Jakub Wolasiewicz, was able to secure Fr. Vitka’s release through dialogue.
In Donetsk, dozens of rebels – including both separatists and Russian nationals, according to the BBC – died Monday in a battle with Ukrainian government forces at the airport, and in Sloviansk 12 Ukrainian troops died Thursday when separatists shot down their helicopter.
The unrest comes as acting president Oleksander Turchynov prepares to hand over power June 7 to Petro Poroshenko, who was elected Ukraine's president May 25, winning 55 percent of the vote.
Fr. Vitka's kidnapping is not an isolated case, as both religious leaders and lay people have been affected by the unrest in eastern Ukraine.
On May 10 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate confirmed that one of its priests, Fr. Pavlo Zuchenko of Druzhkivka in the Donetsk region, had been killed.
The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office stated that “terrorists being coordinated by an outside aggressor” were responsible for the murder. Fr. Zuchenko was killed by an automatic firearm after trying to convince opponents of the Kyiv authorities to give up their arms, Interfax-Ukraine reported .
Another incident occurred May 23 when two activists who had been praying in an interdenominational prayer tent in the center of Donetsk were beaten by 15 armed men, according to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine. The attackers, who wore symbols associated with the DPR, also took audio and technical equipment from the tent.
Serhiy Kosyak, a Protestant pastor in Donetsk who was in the tent at the time and was beaten, wrote on his Facebook page that the separatists threatened to shoot people who would come back later that night to pray in the tent.
“But many more people came to pray that night, even though they knew about these threats,” Kosyak told CNA.
No incidents occurred during the evening prayer gathering.
Two days later, in the neighboring region of Luhansk, a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was arrested, accused of terrorism.
The priest, Fr. Maretskiy, was with a group of armed men who burst into two polling stations in Luhansk during the May 25 presidential election.
The men, reportedly affiliated with the self-proclaimed Peoples' Republic of Luhansk, tried to disrupt the voting process and threatened those at the polling station. Fr. Maretskiy, along with 13 others, was detained by Ukrainian forces.
On May 27 an eparchial committee determined that Fr. Maretskiy could no longer act as a priest in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
“Inside the Church we have so many priests with so many different political opinions,” Oleksandr Drabynko, Metropolitan of Vyshneve and Pereyaslav-Khmelnytskyy and secretary for the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, told CNA.
“I’m very sorry to say that some of our priests really were terrorists.”
“We recognize that fact. But we also recognize that inside the Church, like in society, there is a problem – we don’t have an ideal society. This priest should answer not only to the Church court but also to the Ukrainian state.”
“In my opinion, the Church environment is just a mirror of society,” Metropolitan Oleksandr explained. “Sometimes a mirror shows all the worst things, and since we are on the border between the spirit and the body, we see many more problems.”
Metropolitan Oleksandr confirmed in a statement last week that he too experienced “forced isolation” earlier this year under the regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych, who allegedly wanted the Church's primate, Metropolitan Volodymyr, removed from his position, the Religious Information Service of Ukraine reported.
As Metropolitan Oleksandr is the primate’s personal secretary, his isolation is being investigated by Ukraine’s prosecutor general as an attempt to exert direct pressure on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and to endanger the life of Metropolitan Volodymyr.
“Our Church is being cleansed from its Soviet past, together with society,” Metropolitan Oleksandr said.
“We are changing and being renewed.”