Prayer and protest converge in Ukraine

11.02.2014, 17:34

Canadians are understandably disturbed that anonymous, state-supported thugs can kidnap, beat, mutilate and crucify a protest leader in Ukraine, but they should also think of the terror faced by ordinary citizens, Ukrainian Catholics told The Catholic Register.

Toronto financial planner Glenn Charanduk, a member of Holy Eucharist parish in Toronto, said Ukrainian-Canadians are really scared as protests in Ukraine approached the three-month mark.

“They’re afraid of what’s happening,” Charanduk said. “This brings back memories of Stalin.”

Foreign Minister John Baird said Canada was “outraged” by the kidnapping, crucifixion and abuse suffered by protester Dmytro Bulatov — one of more than 30 who have disappeared from downtown Kiev protests. Bulatov made international headlines after he said he was abducted and tortured for eight days before being released.

“The abduction and abuse of pro-democracy activists is a cruel and crude attempt to deter peaceful protest through fear,” said Baird in a release.

Canada has barred key Ukrainian government figures from entering Canada as the first step in a program of escalating sanctions. Baird warned that Canada won’t be distracted by the Sochi Winter Olympics.

“We will not be taking our eye off Ukraine for one moment during the Sochi games,” he said.

In and of themselves, Canadian sanctions don’t mean much, Ukrainian News editor Marco Levytsky told The Register.

“Any act the Canadian government does is really symbolic,” said the editor of the weekly that keeps many of Canada’s 1.2 million Ukrainian-Canadians in touch with their ancestral homeland.

Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs have few investments or bank accounts in Canada or even North America. The hope is that Canada can pressure the European Union to impose sanctions, Levytsky said. The protests began in November after Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych shelved an agreement with the European Union to forge a deeper relationship with Russia. A stumbling block to EU sanctions is that Germany and other EU members rely on Russia for gas and oil.

If the Canadian government, despite being the first to recognize Ukrainian independence in 1991, is only a minor player in the drama, parishioners at Holy Eucharist know God is a much bigger player. Last Sunday’s Divine Liturgy ended with a “Prayer for Ukraine.”

“After many years of underground existence and secular control, grant that the Church leaders may continue to profess their faith publicly, standing with the people in prayer on the streets and squares of the nation. Help your Church proclaim to all that indeed: ‘God is with us!’” the congregation stood and proclaimed.

“It’s my heritage. It’s my culture. How much I can help, though, is hard,” said Marie Natalie. “I can pray. We feel sad for them and we hope they’re able to get their independence.”

Ukrainians have consistently looked to the Church for support in their struggle for a more transparent, less corrupt and less autocratic form of government, reports Ukrainian-Canadian Jesuit Fr. David Nazar from Kiev.

“Church leaders and religious are on the Maidan (Independence Square) the way they should be according to Church teaching, as odd as that may sound,” Nazar wrote in an email. “They are not in front, nor behind. They are consciously accompanying the people and their prayer includes all sides.”

While the sight of priests among protesters and a tent-chapel on the Maidan for prayer and confessions may seem odd to Western eyes, it’s exactly what Ukrainians expect, Nazar said.

“Ukrainian culture has spirituality at its matrix, unlike many Western cultures,” said Nazar. “Ukrainian language is peppered with references to God. Holy days on the Church calendar are in many instances national holidays… The Church is the most respected institution in the country at 73 per cent of the people.”

Within the Maidan tent-chapel “there have been touching stories of conversion — people finding that God cares about human struggles, that one need not live in fear. Our own (Jesuit) men have been witnesses to such stories,” he said. “It would be a scandal if the Church were not present with the people.”

If the Church, particularly the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, is going to be at the centre of the protest, it should be no surprise that the Church has become a target.

“The Catholic Church has been threatened,” said Levytsky.

The government rescineded a threat in early January to strip the Ukrainian Catholic Church of its legal status, but the official Ukrainian Catholic web site was hacked and vandalized by someone from inside Russia, according to Levytsky.

In some ways religious freedom is in the hands of the demonstrators.

“Should the government ever regain full control, you can expect them to crack down,” Levytsky said. “Either the government will fall or, if they manage to survive, it’s going to be an even bigger dictatorship.”

The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada, Winnipeg Metropolitan Archeparch Lawrence Huculak, doesn’t believe Ukraine will survive the protests unchanged and doesn’t see change coming from the government side.

“They can’t think to pull off Soviet-style tactics or tricks that maybe worked 50 years ago. You’re not going to get away with that now,” Huculak said.

On the other hand, Ukraine can’t become a developed, Western, democratic country just because that’s what the protesters and the majority of Ukrainians want.

“We can’t be simplistic in saying by one stroke of the pen everything will be right,” Huculak said.

Protesters and the leaders of the three largest opposition parties don’t just want Yanukovych to resign and call early elections. They also want a fundamental constitutional change to limit the presidency to a more symbolic role while giving the power to govern back to parliament. Ukraine had been a parliamentary democracy with a weak presidency between 2004 and 2010. In 2010 Yanukovych obtained a ruling from the country’s constitutional court that gave the president power to rule without the consent of parliament, essentially rolling back the Orange Revolution.

Even Ukraine’s small elite of ultra-wealthy oligarchs is now tired of a system of government that encourages corruption, said Nazar.

“The oligarchs want this kind of stuff to end. Stability enhances investment,” Nazar said.

Ukrainian business leaders also crave the kind of modernization that European investment and trade would bring — modernization that is not available from the resource dependent economy of Russia.

“The popular struggle is for transparency, accountability and the rule of law, which the oligarchs also want, but which the president can’t afford,” said Nazar.

Michael Swan

9 February 2014 The Catholic Register