Speaking at the end of a closed-door meeting on religious freedom at the US Embassy to the Holy See, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Ukrainian Church, stressed that “it is a matter of fact that the war in Ukraine has become a silent war.”
The meeting took place June 14, and was the first in a series of meetings dedicated to religious freedom hosted by the US Embassy to the Holy See.
In her initial remarks, Callista Gingrich, US Ambassador to the Holy See, strongly condemned Russian aggression on the Ukrainian territory.
“The facts,” she said, “are truly astonishing. Today, Russia ranks among the worst violators of religious freedom and human rights. There is no sign that its persecution of religious minorities and foreign missionaries is coming to an end. And what is perhaps most troubling is that this repression is not limited to its own borders.”
Ambassador Gingrich noted that “it has been four years since Russia invaded eastern Ukraine, and occupied and attempted to annex Crimea,” and stressed that “these unjust actions, launched under the pretense of ‘defending Russian-speaking people’, have in reality been disastrous for the people living in these regions.”
The head of the biggest Eastern Catholic, or sui iuris, Church in the world, Major Archbishop Shevchuk said at the meeting: “my mission is to convey to the top leaders of the world today the voice of suffering people of Ukraine.”
Shevchuk mentioned current problems in Ukraine, among them the fact that there are thousands of children in direct exposure to explosive material, a constant risk of being targeted for airstrikes, and the pollution of water supplies stemming from underground nuclear explosions during the Soviet era.
“Very often,” he said “the future of our nation is discussed without us. I think that is a big mistake, and I think it is important to make us partners of such a process.”
Major Archbishop Shevchuk saw in the Holy See’s diplomatic presence in the world “a special possibility to share our stories, to speak out on behalf of our people.”
The head of Greek Catholic Ukrainian Church also spoke about the need for religious reconciliation in Ukraine.
“We do not just need to pray for reconciliation. We need to do effective acts of reconciliation. This is crucial,” Shevchuk said.
He added that “reconciliation does not mean to be reconciled with the aggressor, reconciliation does not mean to be reconciled with lying or fake news.”
Shevchuk also noted that “chaplains are in the frontline to help soldiers to be converted to love, not to hatred,” and stressed that “the process of justice and reconciliation should start. We try to foster that process, we preach forgiveness even for our enemy, and we try to share the experience of other countries. We are convinced that dialogue can heal the wounds."
The archbishop emphasized the need for ecumenical dialogue in Ukraine, especially with Orthodox Christians, who are deeply divided in the country, especially after a disagreement over the relationship between Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches. That disagreement has become a contentious debate involving the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
“Ecumenical dialogue,” Shevchuk underscored “is crucial for Ukraine, because Ukraine is a multiethnic and multi-religious country and there is also a painful situation of an internal division between the Orthodox.”
Shevchuk said that “of course there is some sort of competition between Churches, especially those who would call themselves as Orthodox; of course, there is a sound risk of the instrumentalization of the Church for geopolitical proposals; of course there are some facts that even Orthodox priests took up arms against Ukraine’s army; but nevertheless I think that the consciousness that religious peace is a common good of all of us is prevailing right now.”
The head of Greek Catholics of Ukraine discussed the roots of the current disagreement: a request from some Ukrainian Orthodox Churches for independence from affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Churches.
“Of course,” he said, “Ukrainian Orthodox Churches which are not in communion with the Moscow patriarchate are trying to come out of isolation within worldwide Orthodoxy; of course, they would look toward the mother Church, the Church of Constantinople.”
“There are some inner tensions in each Church as well, but thanks to be to God until now we have religious peace among us,” he added.
The archbishop expressed regret that “there is no bilateral dialogue” among the Churches, as “there is no alternative to dialogue. With no dialogue, there is just confrontation.”
He then praised a Ukrainian NGO, the “Council of the Churches and Religious Organizations” that “can help us to meet and to cooperate together for the common good of the Ukrainian society."
He added that, despite Ukraine’s struggles, he has hope.
“We are Christians, we trust in God’s providence. Only God is the master of peace, and there is no peace without justice,” he concluded.
The US Embassy to the Holy See will co-sponsor a June 25 conference on religious freedom, which will take place at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome.