Ukrainian Catholic leader accuses Russia of ‘genocide’ in besieged city of Mariupol

Children shelter in a basement in Mariupol, southeastern Ukraine, amid Russian bombardment on March 5, 2022 Children shelter in a basement in Mariupol, southeastern Ukraine, amid Russian bombardment on March 5, 2022. | Vladyslav Babenko via Shutterstock.

The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church accused Russian forces on Monday of committing “genocide” in the besieged city of Mariupol.

In a video message issued on March 21, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk said that civilians were dying “from hatred” in the settlement in southeastern Ukraine known as the “City of Mary.”

“Today we empathize with the city of Mariupol, where a real genocide is taking place,” he said. “People are dying not only from enemy weapons but also from hatred. Hundreds of people are dying of hunger, not only in the city but also in its environs.”

The term “genocide,” coined by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944, was recognized as a crime under international law by the United Nations General Assembly in 1946.

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as the commission of acts “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Ukrainian government officials have accused Russia of engaging in genocide since the full-scale invasion launched on Feb. 24. Olha Stefanishyna, one of Ukraine’s five deputy prime ministers, said on March 21 that she believed “the massive murder of the Ukrainian people” constituted genocide.

Mariupol, a city with a population of more than 400,000 before the war, now lies in ruins following Russian bombardment. Bombs are reported to have fallen on a maternity clinic, an art school sheltering hundreds of residents, and a theater where hundreds of others had sought refuge. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called the assault on Mariupol “a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come.”

Russian officials have denied that civilians are being targeted. On the eve of the invasion, President Vladimir Putin accused Ukrainian forces of committing “genocide” against Russian speakers in the eastern region of Donbas — a claim rejected by the U.S. State Department.

The U.N. human rights office said on March 20 that it had recorded 2,361 civilian casualties in Ukraine, with 902 people killed and 1,459 injured. It stressed that the actual figures were likely to be considerably higher.

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk records a video message on March 21, 2022.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk records a video message on March 21, 2022.

In his video message on Monday, Shevchuk said: “Real crimes against humanity are happening in the temporarily occupied territories. Every day we receive news about a real humanitarian catastrophe, about murders, looting, rape.”

“But even there, especially in southern Ukraine, civilians are protesting against the occupying power. People are protesting against their oppressors and murderers, and they show that Kherson and other cities of Ukraine, which are under occupation today, are Ukraine, and they want to live in a Ukrainian, independent, free state.”

He added: “I ask all of us to pray for those people who are forcibly being deported from Ukraine to Russia. We have the facts again of a wave of forcible deportation of Ukrainian citizens to a foreign state. None of us knows what fate awaits them there, because they do not decide for themselves what they are to do.”

The 51-year-old major archbishop, based in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, has issued daily video messages since the start of the invasion.

In his address on March 20, he said that churches were being destroyed amid the fighting.

“In these 25 days, almost 44 churches and religious buildings have been destroyed,” he said.

“It is strange that the majority of these churches belong today to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.”

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The Moscow Patriarchate is the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In his March 19 message, Shevchuk noted that Catholics in Ukraine and Russia were preparing for Pope Francis’ consecration of the two countries to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 25.

Invoking Mary’s intercession, he said: “Receive under your protection our Ukrainian people. As a good mother, help to be victorious over the war in Ukraine.”

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