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Russia targeting priests in Crimea, say religious leaders

Call campaign to intimidate and arrest prelates 'total persecution' of the Ukraine Church

Sonya Bilocerkowycz and Sofia Kochmar, Kyiv

Sonya Bilocerkowycz and Sofia Kochmar, Kyiv

Published: March 20, 2014 06:07 AM GMT

Updated: March 19, 2014 07:20 PM GMT

Russia targeting priests in Crimea, say religious leaders

Father Mykola Kvych in Sevastapol last year. The navy chaplain says he was arrested by pro-Russian Ukraine defense forces and accused of supplying weapons to the Ukraine navy (photo by UGCC Information Department)

As the Russian president signed a bill to annex Crimea on Tuesday, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the peninsula has been experiencing what a Church official calls “total persecution”.

“At this moment all Ukrainian Greek Catholic life in Crimea is paralyzed,” Father Volodymyr Zhdan, chancellor of the Stryi eparchy in western Ukraine, told CNA March 18.  

From 2006 to 2010, Father Zhdan served as chancellor of the Odessa-Krym Exarchate, which encompassed both the mainland port city of Odessa and the Crimean Peninsula.

Since late February, the peninsula has seen the emergence of pro-Russian troops, who have taken control of its airports, parliament and telecommunication centers.

Referring to the kidnapping of three Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests in Crimea by pro-Russian forces over the weekend, Father Zhdan stressed that one such case could be called a mistake, but that “multiple kidnappings are not an accident.”

On March 15, Father Mykola Kvych, a naval chaplain stationed in Sevastopol, was detained immediately after celebrating a “parastas,” a memorial prayer service for the dead. The following day, Father Bohdan Kosteskiy of Yevpatoria and Father Ihor Gabryliv of Yalta were also reported missing.

Later that night, all three were said to be alive and safe, with Father Kvych confirming that he had escaped to the mainland of Ukraine with the help of parishioners.

Father Kvych told the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s information department that he was held and questioned for eight hours by representatives of the Crimean self-defense force and Russian intelligence officers.

According to Father Kvych, they accused him of “provocations” and of supplying the Ukrainian navy with weapons. Father Kvych maintained that he helped organize the delivery of food to a blockaded naval base and that he gave two bulletproof vests to journalists.

Upon seeing a Ukrainian flag at his home and portraits of Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera — Ukrainian nationalists who fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets in the 1940s and 50s — inside, Father Kvych’s captors accused him of being in the “SS Army,” a reference to Nazi Germany.

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Followers of Bandera are colloquially called “Banderites,” a label that has been heavily circulated by Russian authorities and media in recent months and whose reported presence in Ukraine, many analysts say, has been used to justify Russian intervention in the country.

Father Kvych has been charged with “extremism,” which in the Russian Federation can carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

Father Kvych does not know how the trial will be conducted, since the national status of Crimea is in dispute.

A referendum was held in the territory March 16 regarding union with Russia. Crimean authorities claim that 97 percent of voters favor seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia, and on March 18, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty declaring the territory absorbed by Russia.

Western nations and the government in Kiev have condemned both the referendum and the annexation.

Full story: Ukrainian Catholics experiencing 'total persecution' in Crimea

Source: Catholic News Agency

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