Three priests of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church who were kidnapped in Crimea over the weekend have reportedly been returned and are safe.

"We have just spoken with Fr. Nicholas Kvych, pastor of the UGCC in Sevastopol. With the help of his parishioners he was able to leave Crimea, and he is now on mainland Ukraine," the information service of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church said in a statement released late in the day, March 16, according to Radio Svoboda.

Fr. Kvych had been kidnapped this weekend by pro-Russian forces, as had Fr. Bohdan Kosteskiy, from Yevpatoria, and Fr. Ihor Gabryliv, from Yalta. Fr. Kvych, a navy chaplain, had been abducted twice: initially on March 15, he was released once, briefly, before being detained again.

After his escape to mainland Ukraine, Fr. Kvych telephoned Fr. Ihor Yatsiv, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church's information service, telling him that Fr. Kosteskiy and Fr. Gabryliv were also safe, without being able to discuss their location.

Priests in Crimea of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has received numerous oral and written threats in recent weeks, as military tensions have escalated on the peninsula; several were warned to leave Crimea, yet have remained with their flock.

"Our priests and bishops have been very close to the people," said Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Eparchy of St. Vladimir-Le-Grand of Parish, according to Vatican Radio. "We've been inspired by the example of Our Lord (who) went a long distance from fellowship with the Father to incarnate himself and be in our reality."

The Church's priests in Crimea have been inspired by Pope Francis, "who said a pastor needs to have the smell of his sheep. And our pastors have been with the people, and they're today with the people enduring this occupation in the Crimea," Bishop Gudziak noted.

"Every abduction is a terrible event for everybody involved," the bishop stated, emphasizing that "it's a gross violation of human rights and God-given human dignity."

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has been expanding in Crimea recently. A new exarchate was established for the peninsula Feb. 13, after the Archiepiscopal Exarchate of Odesa-Krym was split in two. The Crimean exarchate is based in the territory's capital, Simferopol.

Crimea is a southern peninsula of Ukraine where nearly 60 percent of the population are ethnic Russians, and more than 50 percent of the population speak Russian as their first language. The territory was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 under the Soviet Union.

A referendum was held in the territory March 16 regarding union with Russia. Local officials report that with half the votes counted, 95.5 percent favor joining Russia.

The referendum was condemned as illegal by Western nations and the government in Kyiv, but is supported by Moscow.

The vote was boycotted by Tatars, the indigenous ethnic group of Crimea who make up roughly 12 percent of the population. Many Tatars were deported to Central Asia under the Soviet Union, and many want to remain Ukrainian rather than becoming Russian.

Despite condemnation from authorities in Kyiv, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Friday that Moscow would "respect the will of the people of Crimea."

Current tensions in Crimea follow four months of protests in Ukraine which culminated in its president fleeing the country for Russia Feb. 21. Two days later, parliament appointed Oleksander Turchynov acting president.

Beginning Feb. 27, pro-Russian forces began taking control of Crimea, including its airports, parliament, and telecommunications and television centers.