Amid the turmoil between Ukraine and Russia, Crimean Catholics fear Russian oppression and say their church already is suffering great persecution.
“At this moment, all Ukrainian Greek Catholic life in Crimea is paralyzed,” Father Volodymyr Zhdan told Catholic News Agency (CNA) the day Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty annexing Crimea.
Ahead of the March 16 referendum, in which an overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted to request the Russian annexation, Father Mykhailo Milchakovskyi, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, told Catholic News Service uncertainty about the church’s future had caused many congregants to sell their homes and migrate to other parts of Ukraine. “Our Church has no legal status in the Russian Federation, so it’s uncertain which laws will be applied if Crimea is annexed,” he said. “We fear our churches will be confiscated and our clergy arrested.”
International Christian Concern’s Ryan Morgan said church leaders have a reason to be worried: “If Russia refuses to grant Catholic or certain Ukrainian Orthodox Churches registration in the newly Russian Crimea, it is a sure sign that far worse persecution is just around the corner.”
Catholic news outlets reported pro-Russian forces have been anonymously threatening Ukrainian Catholics in recent weeks. Vatican Radio reported that the threats pressured Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests to leave Crimea. In one instance, a note left at the home of an arrested priest said, “A lesson to all Vatican agents.”
On March 15, pro-Russian authorities detained Father Mykola Kvych, a military chaplain. CNA reported that two other priests, Father Bohdan Kosteskiy and Father Ihor Gabryliv, were “kidnapped” by pro-Russian forces as well, but Kvych was able to testify to their safety once he escaped Crimea.
Kvych told the Religious Information Service of Ukraine he was forced to go with authorities and to let them search his home. Police and Russian counterintelligence interrogated him in Russian and did not allow him to speak Ukrainian, he said. He was ordered to appear in court in two weeks, but fled instead.
“The people that helped me leave Crimea explained that if I had not gone, I would have been tried for extremism under Russian law, which can carry a sentence of up to 15 years,” Kvych said.
Bishop Borys Gudziak has appealed to the Russian Orthodox Church to pressure Russia to end the persecution of Ukrainian Catholics, according to Vatican Radio.
Volodymyr Yushkevych, a director in Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, also condemned violence against clerics and appealed to the international community to help protect Ukrainian Catholics, Ukraine Business Online reported.
Ethnic Russians dominate Crimea, but minorities include Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Crimean Tatars. There are about 200,000 Catholics in Crimea and, so far, the church has not recalled its clergy, Morgan said.
Still, the future fills Ukrainian Orthodox Archbishop Kliment of Simferopol with dread. Three priests are among the 200 people the archbishop knows who already have fled Crimea. “The worst is that when people ask me to, I can’t guarantee their safety,” he said.