What began as peaceful protests have escalated into a violent conflict, pitting government forces against ordinary citizens in the streets of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
Demonstrations began in November when Ukrainian President Yanukovich reversed a decision to sign a trade deal with the European Union in favor of a relationship with Russia. On 19 January, the protests turned violent, and on 22 January, they turned deadly. To date, at least five people have been killed.
Father Athanasius McVay PhD is a priest for the Ukrainian Eparchy of Edmonton. He is also an historian and archival researcher who specializes in the 20th-century history of Vatican diplomacy and of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
In an interview with ZENIT, Father McVay offered his perspective on the violent unrest which has taken hold in Kyiv:
ZENIT: Could you give some background on the protests and what sparked them?
Father McVay: I think the catalyst which sparked the “Maidan” (Independence Square) protests was President Yanukovich’s sudden about-face away from the EU toward Putin’s Russia. But a deeper and more significant cause is Ukrainians’ disgust with the endemic corruption of Yanukovich personally and of his government. There are other more remote causes that go farther back into Ukraine’s history.
ZENIT: What has been the historical dynamic between the Church and the Ukrainian government?
Father McVay: Ukraine has its roots not only with ancient Kyivan Rus’ but also in the Kozak (Cossack) State of the XVII century. You’ll find a map showing that state, which revolted against Polish overlordship, on the walls of the Vatican Apostolic Palace’s Hall of the Maps. Like Ukraine itself, the Ukrainian Church found itself at the crossroads between East and West. The hierarchy sought ecclesial communion with Rome in 1439 and 1596 but the union was not accepted by all and divided the Church.
The Russian Empire forcibly and often bloodily suppressed both Ukrainian Catholic (Uniate) and Ukrainian Orthodox churches in the territories which it conquered, and absorbed the faithful into the state Russian Orthodox Church which since Peter the Great’s time was administered by a government board. The Uniate Church survived only in zones taken over by the Austrian Empire and was official renamed “Greek-Catholic Church” in order to promote equality with Roman Catholics.
After the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, Ukraine declared independence. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church was reborn and, together with Greek-Catholics, they supported the legitimate national aspirations of their flocks. But Ukrainian independence was short-lived. Western Ukraine was absorbed by Poland and eastern Ukraine was transformed into the puppet Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Ukrainian Orthodox were brutally suppressed by the Soviets and, in the Second Polish Republic, the Greek-Catholics endured discrimination and persecution (but not total destruction). When Stalin annexed western Ukraine in 1944, he asked his lieutenant, Nikita Khrushchev, to eliminate the Greek-Catholics and ordered the Russian Orthodox hierarchs (just as the Tsar tried to do in 1914) to absorb the Greek-Catholic faithful into its ranks. Bishops, priests, religious, and laity were arrested and tried for crimes against the Communist Party. Trial records show that the military courts also condemned them for opposing the Russian Orthodox Church. All the bishops were faithful and went to their deaths as confessors and martyrs of Church Catholic priests and faithful went underground.
When Gorbachev began his reforms, Greek-Catholics emerged from the underground and demanded their religious freedom from the USSR which ironically (as Stalin insisted to Roosevelt in 1933), guaranteed religious freedom. Both the Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox Churches were reborn after independence in 1991
ZENIT: What began as peaceful protests in Kyiv have turned violent, with some ordinary citizens taking up weapons in the streets. What brought about this dramatic development in the protests?
Father McVay: Ukrainian citizens of all ages and from all walks of life, of Ukrainian, Russian, Jewish, Armenian, and others ethnicities, are fed up with economic and moral destruction of their country by the Yanukovich regime. They came to peacefully demonstrate and asked their spiritual guides, from all denominations, to minister to them. In some ways this protest might be called a counter-revolution because it seeks to undo the moral and political harm done to Ukraine by the revolutionary communist dictatorship and its successors. Another proof that this is not a coup or anarchist revolution is that they did not asked for the state to be overthrown or the laws abolished but for statesmen to serve the people in justice and equity. Undoing the Bolshevik revolution, they countered with prayer, fasting, Holy Confession, the celebration of the Divine Praises and the Divine Liturgy (Mass). The regime’s extreme reaction to peaceful protests, unfortunately, caused them to flare-up.
ZENIT: Some of the most iconic images coming out of Ukraine are those which show priests standing in the line of fire, calling for peace. What role has the Church been playing in shaping these protests? How are Ukrainian Catholics and Christians responding to the conflict?
Father McVay: The priests and deacons have constantly preached the Gospel of peace and justice, not of revolution. The Churches have immediately begged the people to return to peaceful demonstration when they flared up. The Council of Churches, made up of all religions, begged the president not to oppose the nation. When a bloodbath seemed imminent, the church council mediated between the protesters and virtually ordered the opposition, in the name of God and humanity, to return to the negotiating table.
ZENIT: In your opinion, what is the outlook? Do you think the violence will continue to escalate, or is there hope for dialogue and peace on the horizon?
Father McVay: The Ukrainian Catholic, Orthodox and other religions supported the legitimate aspirations of the people during the Orange Revolution of 2004, against Yanukovich. Therefore, since he took power after the 2010 elections, his officials began putting pressure on those churches that most clamorously speak out for human rights.
Like the Soviets, who ostensibly claimed that religious freedom was guaranteed but their deeds showed otherwise, the Yanukovich regime has pursued a policy of intimidation, especially toward the Greek-Catholics who are taught to seek out and speak out on human freedom. The method used is somewhat akin to the famous communist water-drop torture. Drop by drop, slight by slight, the regime is seeking to intimidate and cow the Church into the silence of the sacristy. The education ministry has been vexing the Ukrainian Catholic University for years. Recently one professor, a priest, was charged with a traffic violation in the nation’s capital, Kyiv when, in reality, he was hundreds of kilometers away in Lviv. And a letter from an official of the culture ministry was addressed to Patriarch Sviatoslav, not so subtly threatening to review the UGCC legal status if they continued to pray and celebrate the Holy Sacrements in the Maidan.
Yesterday in Brussels, President Putin of Russia accused the clergy from “western Ukraine” of being “extremist nationalists” and called their peaceful ministrations “unacceptable in any civilized country.” It is difficult to determine his conception of “civilization” but I can only note that the Ukrainian Catholic many clergy have been formed at the most civilized educational institutions in the world (Oxford, Harvard, Rome). Perhaps this is because, unlike some, the UGCC has always spoken out against the violation of human dignity, just as it did in 1933 when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians to death to quash their national spirit and their opposition to inhuman state policies.
As to the charge of nationalism, we should recall the words of the great Servant of God Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky who, in the face of similar accusations, noted:
“And as to the person who take the term “Ukrainian” as a synonym of exaggerated nationalism, he errs because he does not distinguish between exaggerated nationalism and moderate Christian patriotism…. Can a nation be pressured to stop defending itself by legal means when it is being attacked and persecuted?”
Let us work and pray for a return of peace and good government to Ukraine. If the current situation continues there is a real danger that the churches might have to return to the underground existence that they were forced into by the Soviet dictatorship.