Staunton, May 2 – The persecution of Muslims in occupied Crimea and threats to Jews in those parts of eastern Ukraine where pro-Russia groups have seized power have received a great deal of attention in the West as evidence of what these Ukrainian areas face if Moscow is able to maintain its control there.
But the actions of Russian officials, both local and from Moscow, against Christian groups have receive much less attention, even though the numbers of people affected are far larger and constitute equally clear violation of the rights of those who are the victims of such anti-religious efforts.
Like its Soviet predecessor, the government of the Russian Federation has been hostile to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, viewing it as an effort by the Vatican to penetrate the “canonical space” of the Russian Orthodox Church. Throughout the Soviet period, the Uniates as this church is known were among the most persecuted religious groups in the USSR.
With the annexation of Crimea, Uniate leaders say, the Russian authorities have begun “the total persecution” of its leaders and parishioners. Three Uniate priests were “kidnapped” by Russians, and although they were subsequently released, one of them has been charged with “extremism”.
In addition, several Uniate churches have been vandalized in Russian-controlled areas just north of Crimea and in Crimea itself, Uniate priests have received threatening phone calls and letters. One note said that the recent kidnappings/arrests should serves as “a lesson to all Vatican agents.”
Kyiv has condemned such actions by Russian officials in Crimea. The Ukrainian culture ministry on March 18 said that “Recently, in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea cases of persecution of the clerics of various denominations have been documented. There has been an unprecedented violation of rights in the field of freedom of conscience and religion. We demand there be a stop to the practice of terror and for rights and liberties to be respected.”
But instead of pulling back, the Russian authorities in occupied Crimea have continued their repression of this Christian group and more recently of parishes belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate as well. On Sunday, Archbishop Kliment, administrator of that church’s Crimean eparchate, said Russian officials are neither protecting religious facilities nor allowing churchmen to go to them.
Kliment noted that he had earlier called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to guarantee equal rights for all religious faiths as Moscow is obligated to do under international conventions it has signed. But so far, the Ukrainian Orthodox hierarch added, the situation has not improved but may even be getting worse.
Shannon Grady, an American columnist, has called attention to the fact that Russian efforts at “Catholic cleansing” in occupied Crimea and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine have “gone relatively unreported and thus undeterred, causing many of Ukraine’s Greek Catholics to fear a return to the days of the underground church which existed from 1945 until 1989”.
She quoted the words of Vishop Vasyl Ivasyuk, a Uniate leader in Ukraine, to the effect that what is happening in Crimea “is not new. During Soviet times, we were always accused of being ‘agents’ of the Vatican. Of course, not all people in Crimean think we are spies, but there is a very active pro-Russian group there that does”.
Some Catholics in the US are beginning to speak out. Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, for example, said last week: “We Catholics in the United States cannot let these brave Ukrainians, whose allegiance to their religious convictions has survived ‘dungeon, fire, and sword,’ languish. They deserve our voices and our prayers. Nor can we as American citizens fail them, as we call for our government to stand with them”.