Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia called on Catholics to pray for the Church in Ukraine during the country's recent crisis and to support U.S. restrictions on its political and business leaders.
“Silence from the United States encourages oppression in Ukraine. We can't let that happen, again, to fellow believers who bore so much suffering for so many decades,” Archbishop Chaput said Jan. 30.
The archbishop said that conditions in Ukraine had improved after the fall of Communism. However, the country’s leaders, beginning in late 2013 “cracked down heavily on demonstrations and dissent, killing some protesters and arresting hundreds of others.”
“Christians in Ukraine – Catholics, Orthodox and others – have not been silent. The Church's people and leaders have played a major role in denouncing government violence, political repression and corruption,” he said.
“Ukrainian Catholic clergy have given vital pastoral care to those demonstrating for human rights and democratic principles. And they've been targeted by the government for doing so.”
The Ukraine demonstrations, centered in the capital of Kiev, originally began after the government's Nov. 21 announcement that it would not sign a major economic partnership agreement with the European Union. Since then protesters have occupied government buildings, at times filling the capital with more than 100,000 people.
The demonstrations have produced iconic images of Christian priests and monks standing between protesters and security forces dressed in riot gear.
Several protesters have been killed in the clashes, while hundreds have been injured. Several police have also been killed.
Ukrainians in the Kiev area and in western Ukraine tend to favor the European Union, while those in the Russian-speaking east tend to have an affinity for Russia. However, protests have begun to spread to the east, where President Viktor Yanukovych’s strongest support is based.
Archbishop Chaput said that Eastern and Western Catholics belong to “one Church…bound together by a common faith in Jesus Christ.” He said that while the suffering of Polish Catholics under Communism is well-known because of Pope John Paul II’s resistance, the 50 years of Soviet persecution of Ukrainian Greek Catholics was “even more brutal.”
The archbishop endorsed the Wall Street Journal’s recommendation of a visa ban on Ukrainian political and business leaders and the freezing of their U.S.-based assets. He also voiced his solidarity with Ukrainian Catholic Archbishop Stefan Soroka, head of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia.
Archbishop Soroka’s Jan. 19 statement, signed by three other leaders of Ukrainian Greek Catholics in the U.S., voiced “great concern” about the reports of government officials’ threats and intimidation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The statement warned that people dedicated to “oppressive and repressive ideologies” continue to have “inordinate control” in Ukraine and are a danger to “people of all faiths.”
The bishops warned that Ukraine can be regarded as “the stage for the re-imposition of specific ideologies of control and repression.”
“We share the amazement of the civilized world in observing the harsh and brutal responses of the Ukrainian government to our Church and to people expressing their concerns for the welfare of their neighbors and their nation,” they said.
They called for steadfast prayers for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, asking that God “sustains their courage to speak the truths all of us need to hear.” The U.S. bishops asked for assistance and vigilance to ensure that “all oppression is widely exposed and doomed to failure.”
They also called upon “all freedom-loving individuals” to “pray and support the cause of religious freedom in Ukraine and in countries where such basic freedoms are suppressed.”
The bishops gave their “complete confidence and support” to Patriarch Sviatoslav, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and all bishops, clergy, religious and faithful of the Church in the Ukraine providing pastoral care to the demonstrators.
“Their response of love and understanding and nurture recalls for all the compassion which Jesus showed for the oppressed,” the message said.
Archbishop Chaput praised the bishops' statement, calling it “a privilege to join my own voice, and the voice of the people and clergy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, to the voice of Archbishop Soroka and the Ukrainian Catholic community.”
He said that Archbishop Soroka has called for Catholics and other Americans to support “the struggle for religious and civil liberties in Ukraine.”
“We can do that first and most importantly by prayer – and then by contacting our elected representatives,” he said.
The situation in Ukraine is still changing. On Jan. 28, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his cabinet resigned in hopes of advancing a compromise. Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to annul controversial anti-protest laws and has also approved a bill granting amnesty to detained protesters.