“What a beautiful example for all of us in the free world -- the centrality of faith in people’s struggle for human dignity,” Archbishop Stefan Soroka of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia told CNA March 5.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in particular, he said, is encouraging a peaceful approach to the situation and continuing “to be Christ's presence among the people,” adding that the Church is not encouraging violence, but trying to calm the protesters and to lead them in prayer.
The country has undergone a series of nationwide protests about the country’s direction since November 2013, with divisions between citizens who favor closer ties to the European Union and those who favor closer ties to Russia. The protests led Ukraine’s pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country Feb. 21; two days later, parliament appointed Oleksander Turchynov as acting president.
The political stakes further escalated Feb. 28, as unmarked troops began to take control of airports, communications centers, government buildings and military bases in the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea. Russian flags were raised on the region’s parliamentary building and a new parliament was sworn in in an emergency session.
The troops, wearing Russian uniform without insignia, are believed to be Russian, though the nation’s president Vladimir Putin has denied this.
The Crimean parliament has called a referendum on whether the region will join Russia. Ukraine’s interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the new government in Kyiv have said the vote would be unconstitutional and illegitimate.
Archbishop Soroka said Ukrainian Catholics have been “very concerned” by the conflict because of the Church’s experience in the past. “People are afraid to go back to those Communist times,” he said, pointing to the persecution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which was outlawed under Soviet Rule from 1946 to 1989. “People don't know what will happen to them.”
The archbishop said there continues to be persecution against the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church in some parts of Russia.
This treatment of the Ukrainian Catholic Church preceded the Ukraine crisis, but now there is “incitement of hatred, distrust,” he said.
Still, he said that Catholics should be understanding and patient in the midst of “hurt and damage that will take a long time to heal.”
The archbishop said that those who are pressuring Catholics and Ukrainians are “products of a regime” and decades of Soviet policies that they grew up learning to emulate.
“It is a call for us, especially in the time of Lent now, to be the Christ, bringing the love of God to all these people. Show the love of God, his redeeming love for all of us.”
Archbishop Soroka called to mind Pope Francis’ recent words reminding Catholics that “human dignity is the same for all human beings.”
“How do we as good Christians, raise the dignity of one another?” He said there is a particular challenge “to work against the incitement of this hatred and distrust that is being sown in society.”
The protests in Ukraine, for the most part, have been an example of this prayerful search for dignity, the archbishop said.
The Church, he said is helping the people to pray and support the demonstrations, and is also providing pastoral care, shelter, and medical aid.
The Ukrainian Catholic community in the United States has hosted rallies in different cities and is working to persuade politicians to “exert economic and social pressure on Putin to dialogue,” the archbishop said.
On March 4 Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville asked Catholics in the U.S. to pray for “a peaceful resolution of this crisis” that secures “the just and fundamental human rights of a long-suffering, oppressed people.”
He voiced solidarity and prayer for an end to the tensions and “troubling events,” in the Ukraine. Noting the history of persecution of Ukrainian Catholics, he said that U.S. Catholics “raise our voice in defense of religious liberty in Ukraine, a liberty further threatened by the invasive actions occurring in the country.”
Bishop Jacek Pyl, auxiliary bishop of the Odessa-Simferopol diocese, urged the Christian faithful to keep praying for peace.
"With our prayer we reach out to all the people without concern for their religion, political views or ethnic background. We pray that the people, who for tens of years live in peace – do not start fighting today."
Bishop Pyl called on all people “to stay away from extremisms” and to not allow “the brotherhood among Crimean people to be broken,” he said in a statement provided to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Archbishop Soroka hoped that Christians across the world could find inspiration in the “tranquil, prayerful” approach of the Ukrainian Catholics to the conflict in Ukraine.
“We can learn so much from their example. I know I’m continually inspired by that example.”
Prayer and respect for the dignity of all persons are at the core of the Ukrainian Catholic response to the upheavals in Ukraine, a prelate of the tradition in the U.S. has said.
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church