Two Catholic priests captured by Russian troops are “being tortured without mercy,” the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church said Thursday.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk issued an appeal to international authorities on Dec. 1 to help facilitate the release of Father Ivan Levytskyi and Father Bohdan Heleta, who have been held in captivity for more than two weeks.
“We have received the sad news that our priests are being tortured without mercy,” Shevchuk said.
“According to classic Stalinist methods of repression, confessions to crimes they did not commit are being extracted from them. In fact, our two heroic pastors are daily threatened under torture with death.”
The Ukrainian archbishop asked Catholics around the world to pray for the release of the priests.
“Our request is for the immediate release of the two priests, who have no fault other than that of loving their people, their Church, the community entrusted to them,” he said.
“I appeal to diplomatic representatives and to international human rights organizations, asking them to do everything possible to save the lives of these heroic pastors. And I ask all the faithful of our Church in Ukraine and abroad, all Christians, all people of good will, to pray for the salvation of these two priests.”
According to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the two Redemptorist priests had chosen to stay in territory under Russian occupation to serve the local Greek Catholic and Latin-rite Catholic communities.
“Subsequently, some military objects were placed in the church in order to accuse them of the illegal possession of weapons,” Shevchuk said.
Levytskyi and Heleta were taken from their parish, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the coastal city of Berdyansk on Nov. 16 and accused of having committed “subversive” and “guerrilla” activities by the Russian National Guard.
The Ukrainian Catholic Archiepiscopal Exarchate of Donetsk denied the accusations, calling the detention “unfounded and illegal,” and demanded the prompt release of the clerics.
“At the time of the search of the church and the adjacent rectory and premises of the parish, both priests were already under arrest; that is, they could not control these premises and the actions of the Russian National Guard in any way,” the statement from the local church said.
“They cannot bear any responsibility for the weapons and ammunition allegedly found in those places. This is clear slander and a false accusation.”
In an interview published earlier this week, Pope Francis described Ukrainians as “a people who are martyred.”
“If you have a martyred people, you have someone who martyrs them,” the pope told America Magazine.
“When I speak about Ukraine, I speak about the cruelty because I have much information about the cruelty of the troops that come in. Generally, the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on,” Francis added.
The pope’s comments elicited a strong response from Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who called Pope Francis “un-Christian” in a televised speech on Thursday.
“Pope Francis calls for talks but also recently made an incomprehensible statement, completely un-Christian, singling out two Russian nationalities into some category from which atrocities can be expected during hostilities,” Lavrov said, according to Politico.
The Russian foreign minister added: “Of course this doesn’t help the cause and the authority of the Holy See.”