WARSAW, Poland — Two Ukrainian priests have asked Western Church leaders for support, especially in anticipation of a widely expected Russian invasion.
“While our TV news shows tanks and army units deployed on our borders, the war in eastern Ukraine continues – but the church in the West speaks little,” said Msgr. Gregory Semenkov, Chancellor of the Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia.
“As faithful Catholics, we have nothing against the Russians and regularly organize masses in the Russian language, while our episcopal conference, being apolitical, has never taken a position on Ukraine’s accession to the NATO or the European Union. But these preparations for invasion present us with grave dangers.
The priest spoke to Catholic News Service on January 14 as talks between NATO and Russian officials, the first in two years, failed to reach an agreement on Moscow’s demands to put end to Western military support for countries formerly members of the Soviet Union. Msgr. Semenkov said most Catholics believed a “big Russian show of force” was likely after the collapse of East-West talks.
He told CNS that Ukrainian Catholics did not know how Russian forces would treat their church, but added that it was agreed that priests and nuns should decide for themselves whether to leave or stay in case of ” military aggression”.
Father Roman Krat, judicial vicar of the Ukrainian diocese of Odessa-Simferopol, said he also believed an invasion was likely, given the completion of Russia’s 750-mile Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe, the good combat conditions offered by frozen surfaces in winter and the improbability of a NATO military response.
He told CNS that support for Russian President Vladimir Putin has plummeted among Russian-speaking Ukrainian Catholics due to events in occupied Crimea and Donbass. He also said that it was intended that Catholic clergy would be required to accept Russian citizenship to continue their ministry if Russian troops invaded.
“Putin knows that some Western countries, already completely dependent on Russian gas, would choose warm homes over Ukraine,” he told CNS. “He also faces internal economic and social problems and needs to divert public attention – to show that Russia is strong and victorious under his leadership. Although there is a lot of negotiation and manipulation going on, these factors all point in the same direction.
Krat also said that several Catholic parishes would be in the direct path of a Russian attack.
“Although we are aware that NATO has not accepted Russia’s demands, we do not know whether this will provide a pretext for direct action or for further negotiations,” he said. “But we know there is a real threat now, at a different military level than before, so we are seeking prayers for peace, as well as material help and support.”
“Our church has cautiously avoided commenting on Ukraine’s future alignments, believing that this could negatively affect its future work,” Krat told CNS. “But if the Russian army occupies these territories, there will be a total change. The church is unlikely to be banned or forced to close its dioceses. But its clergy will crumble, as Ukrainian priests are expelled and Polish priests forced to return home.
In April 2014, Russian-backed separatists declared independent republics in Ukraine’s Lugansk and Donetsk regions, sparking a war that left more than 14,000 people dead. The international community still recognizes the regions as part of Ukraine.
Russia began mustering 120,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders in late October, raising fears of a three-pronged offensive involving tank attacks, airstrikes and artillery bombardment.
Speaking in Moscow on January 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a NATO pledge never to expand or deploy forces in Ukraine was essential to defuse tensions, although governments Westerners have rejected this request.
Ukrainian Catholic Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the country’s Eastern Catholic Church, told the Polish Catholic News Agency, KAI, on January 14 that there was an “eerily peaceful atmosphere” in the country, despite the accumulation of borders, but also warned Ukrainians “would defend themselves and shed blood” if Russia invaded.