Rimini, Italy, Sep 3, 2016 / 05:50 am (CNA).- To overcome conflicts, to fight hatred with goodness, to make Ukraine a free and European country: these are the tasks of the Catholic Church in Ukraine, according to a priest with knowledge of the situation. Christians in Ukraine are facing a difficult experience. Despite the near-constant conflict, the humanitarian emergency Ukrainian Christians face has disappeared from the world’s sight.

Ukrainian priest Fr. Oleksandr Khalayim spoke about the situation at a meeting in Rimini, Italy hosted by Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic ministry that supports the Church in areas where it is persecuted. But how exactly is the Church persecuted in Ukraine? While Ukrainian Christians have been key supporters of Ukrainian independence, the Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine has been keen to state that it wishes to be close to all the people, and not take a political position.

“The persecution of the Church in Ukraine has lasted for the entire period of the Soviet Union, when the regime wanted to eliminate any sign of Christianity,” Fr. Khalayim told CNA. “Today, the Church in Ukraine has great authority, even if a few problems in the conflict zone and in Crimea survive.”

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is an Eastern Rite Catholic Church in full communion with Rome and one of the major Christian churches of Ukraine. During the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution and subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, along with members of the Roman Catholic Church and Russian Orthodox Church, as well the Muslim and Jewish communities, came together to support the revolution.

“People took to the streets united to defend the fundamental values of human freedom,” Fr. Khalayim said. The 2014 Ukrainian Revolution began on February 18, 2014 as anti-government protests against then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to back out of an association agreement with the European Union came to a head.

Further protests erupted as Yanukovych signed treaties with Russia. After tensions continued to rise, Yanukovych fled to Russia. Russia then refused to recognize Ukraine’s interim government, sparking the Russian Annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in the south of what was then-Ukraine. The conflict has continued to this day in Eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have been entrenched in stalemate with Ukrainian forces in the region of Donbass. Russia denies involvement in the conflict.

Fr. Khalayim said that during the 2014 revolution the Church was always “ready to share the fate of his flock.” “It stayed close to all,” and infused with prayer the strength to resist ties with Russia. He cast the revolution as the Ukrainian people’s work to “break down the system of corruption and human exploitation and to build a new road, a new Ukraine with new values.”

However, while international attention was given to the Russian annexation of Crimea, Fr. Khalayim criticized the media’s subsequent silence. He said that the conflict between Russian-sponsored forces and the Ukrainian people continues to this day. “The conflict in the territory east of Ukraine has already taken more than 9,500 people’s lives, and almost 800,000 people live in war zones, or at least close to them. There are nearly 2 million people who were forced to leave their homes,” he stressed. “And unfortunately, in recent times the situation has worsened,” he continued.

He added that there are still attacks, bombings, and the expansion of poverty in areas struck by war. Despite these challenges, the Ukrainian people and the Church are continuing on. “There are many priests who give their service as chaplains and give strength and hope to young soldiers to resist in this senseless war,” he said. The spiritual resistance to despair and conflict is ecumenical, he added, noting that “there are continuous prayer meetings for peace, with all denominations.”

Unfortunately, the conflict has deepened tensions between the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. In addition, it has caused rifts between some Orthodox Churches as some Orthodox priests and parishioners have left the Russian Orthodox Church to join the autocephalous Orthodox Patriarchate of Kiev. “More than a conflict, this attitude can lead to isolation of the ecclesial community,” Fr. Khalayim lamented.

He said the division there was not driven by “loyalty to the commandments of God, but because of political views.” The conflict is not a civil war, Fr. Khalayim commented, but a new kind of hybrid war, which blurs the lines between foreign aggression, foreign sponsorship of a civil war, and a genuine domestic revolution. Fr. Khalayim pointed out that while Russia denies its presence in the conflict zone in Ukraine, Russia also denied its presence in Crimea before bringing in the army to annex the territory. 

According to Ukraine, he explained, the conflict within the country is coming from their neighboring state. “It is clear that without the intervention of Russia, there would never be a military conflict.” This prolonged tension between Ukraine and Russia adds to the complicated history between the two regions. Fr. Khalayim pointed to the history of Russian Tsars Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great and Peter the Great, whom he claims “wanted to exterminate all that was Ukrainian — culture, tradition, language and the Church.”

The two nations, he says, are “close, yes, but not brothers.” Given recent actions, he charged, “Russia has shown it does not want to be a sister nation, but a dominant people.” Despite these challenges facing Ukraine, the Ukrainian people have come together in the face of the conflict. “The pain and suffering have joined the people together, and truly now we can speak of a Ukrainian people,” Fr. Khalayim explained.

The uniting of the Ukrainian people has also strengthened the resolve of the Church — all the Churches in Ukraine — to stand against violence and to stand for peace. The Orthodox Churches in Ukraine have made steps to form a union together, and other initiatives to protect human dignity have remained the focus of Christians in Ukraine.

Going forward, Fr. Khalayim suggested, Ukraine must continue to push for freedom and its future. “Ukraine now has to rise from fear and violence, so that it can be a country of peace and true brotherhood,” he said.