Dear brothers in episcopacy, members of the Conference of Bishops of France!
I’m very grateful for all prayers, words of support and concerns that I receive from you and fellow bishops from all over the world. His Beatitude Patriarch Sviatoslav and all bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) and I personally appreciate and value the support of the Holy Father who under various occasions has made public statements of support to Ukrainians and our faithful.
Presently I am in Ukraine for the permanent Synod of the UGCC and feel particularly blessed that I can be a witness and participant to events that are shaping the future of the country: which is presently experiencing a somber triumph: sadness and pain, mystery and miracle. Allow me to share some personal perspectives.
What is happening in Ukraine?
Ukraine is changing. We see new appointments, resignations, new laws passed, and old laws cancelled. We see how symbols of the Soviet epoch are falling: during these days Lenin monuments in many eastern Ukrainians towns have been demolished. Around 80 members of Parliament MP’s left the pro-Yanoukovych Party of Regions and joined the opposition to form a new majority in parliament. On Thursday new members of the cabinet of ministers will be appointed. Presidential elections are scheduled for May, 25. Changes are so rapid that Ukrainians do not really have time to reflect and think them through.
But it’s more than just political change. An important historical shift has occured. In twentieth century Ukrainians suffered immeasurably – two world wars, red and brown terror, the great famine – Holodomor, the Holocaust, repression of churches, persecution of culture and language. Up to 17 million people died of violent or unnatural death. Ukrainians bear wounds of the past and fear has become part of their national DNA.
For over a century Ukraine was denied language, culture, freedom, dignity. After independence came a breath of freedom. But also growing authoritarianism and rabid corruption. The protesters lead by students and a new generation of young people want a different life for themselves and their children.
In this revolution, Ukrainians have been in pilgrimage from fear to dignity, God given dignity. This is the main story, often missed in the news. Journalists have focused on East-West politics. However the movement that mobilized million has its foundation the fundamental desire of people to live their God given human dignity, claiming it and protecting it, even at the ultimate price – one’s own life. Close to one hundred people have been killed. In recent days they have been publicly canonized as the Heavenly Century.
Short chronicle of events
Participants and program: Protests started as pro-European, later became anti-government but they never were anti-Russian. There were some anti-Putin slogans but that was not against ethnic Russians. The first man killed at the Maidan (square or agora) was Armenian, the second Belarusian. There were hundreds of Jews on the Maidan. Crimean tatars (Muslims) supported the Maidan from the very beginning.
Protests started in November after the Yanukovych government refused to sign the association agreement with the EU. For many years various Ukrainian governments, including that of President Yanoukovych advanced the idea of eurointegration. The European orientation of Ukraine was even reflected in a law passed in parliament. Protesters were mainly young people: students, journalists, managers. Peaceful protesters who had only flags in their hands. They protested peacefully for 8 days and were violently dispersed by riot police on the night of November 30th. Many were beaten and jailed, galvanizing the protest.
During December and the beginning of January, protest grew, riot police made attempts to dismantle barricades, activists and journalists were beaten up and jailed. The protest movement expanded geographically, internationally and grew in intensity. Government headquarter was blocked by police. Protesters occupied some government buildings.
On January 16the Parliament passed a law severely limiting human rights and effectively created a dictatorship. After a month of peaceful protests and attacks from police, protesters began defending themselves actively. On January 22, 3 people were shot dead and many were injured. Death squads of criminal hooligans organized by the authorities kidnapped and killed activists. In different cities, government –hired thugs beat people mercilessly on the streets. Throughout, opposition leaders conducted negotiations with president Yanukovych and his increasingly hawkish (en français rapace) narrow circle of advisers. The President largely ignored protesters demands. The Prime minister resigned but the Maidan was demanding the resignation of the minister of internal affairs, blamed for giving orders to beat protesters.
On February 18, thousands of protesters came to parliament to demand Members of Parliament (MPs) to pass laws regulating the political crisis in Ukraine. In clashes, police used firearms, threw concussion grenades (assourdissantes) from the rooftops at protesters and brutally beating them. An elderly woman was killed. The Minister of Internal affairs and the Security Service of Ukraine (former KGB) launched an antiterrorist operation starting a brutal storm which lasted for two days, with further gun fire, grenades and snipers shooting from buildigns. On Thursday February 20, riot police retreated from the Maidan and unarmed protesters advanced to build barricades destroyed two days before during the storm. Many of them were killed by snipers, over a 2-3 hour period. There is no final body count, but the number is approximately one hundred. Some protesters had weapons but the people killed had only helmets and wooden shields. Snipers using high power rifles continued shooting intermittently the whole day.
All this occurred in broad daylight in the very center of Kyiv, with numerous live television cameras from many nations, during the presence in Kyiv of the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland. Under the pressure of Western diplomats, after all-night negotiations on Friday President Yanukovych signed an agreement with the opposition to regulate the crisis – to cease fire, to legislate a new Constitution in September and to hold president elections in December. For the protesters, after the massacre of Thursday that was too little, too late.
After so many deaths, the Maidan rejected the agreement demanding that politicians return to Parliament, form a new majority and vote for impeachment of the President. MPs came to parliament and started a new session. Yanukovych, who by then lost the support of state security services, fled his ostentatious residence in Mezhyhirya at night. His collaborates also disappeared. Subsequently he was declared wanted. The deposed President recorded a video statement calling the events a coup d’état. He sought to flee the country by plane from Donetsk but was denied departure. He was last seen on the Crimean peninsula.The leader of Yanukovych party in parliament has place full blame for the bloodshed on the depose President. Many former Yanukovych government officials are in hiding.
Spiritual-psychological: presently the country is in mourning and many activists are in posttraumatic shock. Funerals are being held in many Ukrainian towns and villages.
Security: some regions in the country remain without normal police authority and there are some marginal separatist movements largely inspired by Russia in the East and the South. There is a problem regarding the riot police that beat protesters: most troops were disarmed and follow orders of the new minister of internal affairs. But some armed troops have disappeared.
Political: the opposition started forming a new cabinet of ministers. The deep corruption in Ukraine characterized not only the government but also certain members of the opposition. Thus protesters do not have full trust in opposition leaders; they want new faces in politics.
Economic: Ukraine is facing default and needs a bailout. The EU, UK and USA promised help but the precondition is political stability and economic reform. Reforms will be very painful because they will affect most severely the poorest part of the population.
Role of Ukrainian Churches
During recent months Ukrainian Churches and religious organizations often spoke unanimously – they urged the President to listen to the people, condemned violence and division in society and encouraged dialogue.
Priests of different denomination were on the Maidan from the first days and throughout the coldest nights and under the most violent attacks. Orthodox (in Ukraine there are three branches of Orthodoxy – of the Moscow Patriarchate, of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Autocephalous Church), Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims were on the Maidan. They prayed together and supported the people also during the events of the last week. Even after riot police burned a tent chapel in one of attacks. (I was present on the Maidan during this attack) One priest rescued the chalice and the Evangelary. Clergy comforted the injured, absolve the sins and said prayers over the dying. In the words of Pope Francis the pastors had the smell of their sheep. In those days, Ukrainian priests smelled of burned tyres. Ukrainian Greek Catholics have 4 churches in Kyiv (two are small chapels). A small monastery church and Patriarchal Cathedral became a shelter for protesters (up to 1100 at night) and later a hospital for the injured. Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestants Churches also served as shelters and hospitals.
There have been many conversions on the Maidan and in Ukraine. The day on the Maidan begins and is interspersed with ecumenical prayer. During the danger of the night, prayer and the singing of the national anthem is hourly. Faith has helped many people to endure. Religious sisters distributed thousands of rosaries. Many people learned to pray and some were buried with the Maidan rosaries.
There has been a tremendous shift in consciousness of Ukrainians. There is a growing sense of dignity accompanied by an understanding that all citizens have to take responsibility for the political and well being. The Maidan has become an important platform and instrument for regulating political life. Mixed feelings prevail in Ukraine: – sorrow and pain for the victims killed in such a coldblooded manner and for their families, gratitude for the deposition of tyranny and hope for the future. The nation has maturated in these three months. The Maidan movement with its focus on principles and explicit spiritual and even Christian character has much to offer to Europe as a whole. There is still much to do. Ukrainians need your support and prayer.
Bishop Borys Gudziak