In the early 1980s, the man who would become the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church practiced Christianity in what was known as the "underground church."
For Ukrainian Catholics, whose nation was the largest satellite under the former Soviet Union, life with the absence of their church lasted more than four decades. Many priests, members of the church and its supporters were sent to Siberia and imprisoned or killed. Fearing the staunch nationalism of Ukrainian Catholics, Soviet leaders understood that church leaders would not turn on their own parishioners or succumb to Soviet policies.
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, second right, delivered the liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica with Pope Francis in November. Shevchuk was a student under Pope Francis in Argentina. (Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation)
Now, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk is walking in the footsteps of his predecessors. His church, which has a membership of 5 million and is an arm of the Roman Catholic Church, is firmly standing for the sovereignty of Ukraine and to mitigate the pressure of Russia's influence in their nation's political affairs.
Speaking exclusively with TheBlaze last week after attending the National Prayer Breakfast and meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, the 43-year-old Shevchuk spoke of his nation's fragile future and what he was asking of the Obama administration.
In November, President Viktor Yanukovych's decision not to sign an economic agreement with the European Union and instead agree to a $15 billion loan and lower gas prices from Russia sent millions of Ukrainians into the streets and set off the three-month-long protests still underway. The fear of Russian influence for Ukrainians runs deep, and many families tell stories of what life was like under former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, when more than 400,000 Ukrainians were sent to Siberia, Shevchuk said.
"The big concern of the Ukrainian people is that it could be possible, in this moment, [to have] some sort of restoration of the former Soviet Union," warned Shevchuk, who speaks nine languages including English.
The crisis is not only a matter for Ukraine, he said. If Russia succeeds in developing stronger ties, drawing Ukraine further from the Western world, "not only Europe but the whole world could be on the edge of [a] new Cold War."
"So this is my message to Americans: Do not stay apart [from] the situation in Ukraine because in this globalized world. We all are united — people on [the central square in the capital city of Kiev] Maidan are standing for our and your freedom, for our and your democracy, for our and your better future," said Shevchuk, who is known as the "patriarch" within the church.
He called the protests in Ukraine "the revolution of dignity" and said he told Biden, along with other senior administration officials, that the majority of Ukrainians stand for the same principles of freedom the United Sates was built on.
Bishop Borys Gudziak, left, co-founder and president of the Ukrainian Catholic University, meets with protestors on the Maidan in Kiev in December. (Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian Catholic Foundation)
He noted that the United States promised under a trilateral agreement signed in 1994 to provide security assurances to the Ukraine after it transferred all strategic warheads on its territory to Russia for elimination. At that point, Ukraine had the third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world as part of the former Soviet Union.
"We gave up our nuclear weapons in order to maintain our integrity, our territory and our independence," Shevchuk said. "And the United States permitted itself to be a guaranteers, to guarantee the integrity of our territory and our independence. It is why we do expect the United States will fulfill its duty to help us remain a free and independent country ... along with the European Union will protect Ukraine from foreign aggression."
Shevchuk said that beyond Ukraine asking for economic aid, the country's people want the U.S. to foster the message between its European allies and Russia to transmit the message that an "independent and free Ukraine can guarantee democracy not only in our country but will be a mediator of those values to all the post Soviet republics of Eastern Europe."
Since the protests began, however, the Ukrainian government has been targeting the church: In the last month, priests and bishops of the Catholic church have been holding services in Kiev's Independence Square. They have stood between the protesters and the rioters as tensions have escalated. At least six people have been killed since the protests began and three of those people killed in January near the parliamentary library — close to the clashes — were believed to have been shot by a professional sniper, according to news reports, which cited medics who treated the activists. Ukraine’s prosecutor general confirmed the two had died from bullet wounds, but Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said law enforcement did not possess firearms, denying that police have used guns during the crisis, according to European news reports.
The priests prayed for protesters but also for the riot police, many of whom have been accused by protestors of being involved in beating and kidnapping anti-government demonstrators, Shevchuk said.
"God is supposed to be with those who are persecuted, who are beaten, who are left without consideration," he said. "It is why from the very beginning our priests were with our people in the middle of that square. And in many cases the very presence of the priests kept those protests in a peaceful way. So clergy from many churches, not only from our church ... but from the Orthodox churches, Protestants, Jews and Muslims were there in order to protect their people and be a peacemaker in the middle of that tense protest. But our feeling is that Ukraine, Ukrainians are willing to solve this problem in a peaceful way."
Individual liberties are at stake in Ukraine, said Alex Kuzma, chief development officer with the nonprofit Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation. Kuzma said Shevchuk received a personal letter in January from Ukraine's Ministry of Culture, under the direction of Yanukovych, warning that the church would lose its nonprofit status and be de-legitimized in Ukraine if its bishops and clergy continued to join protesters.
Kuzma said "there is every reason to fear the re-emergence of Soviet-style anti-Western government."
For many Ukrainians, what Russia does at the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics — how involved Russian President Vladimir Putin's government chooses to be in Ukrainian politics — will set the direction for the future of his nation. For the patriarch, it is his faith in God.
"We realize that the dignity of a person and personal liberties don't come from a constitution, a state law, a ruler, but from God," Shevchuk said. "God created us in his own image and likeness as free men and free women. So we are expecting that United States will support freedom and democracy in Ukraine."
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