Pro-European Union protesters pray during a rally on Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, early Jan. 16. Canada's Catholic bishops wrote to the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk last month assuring him of their prayers and solidarity.

CNS PHOTO | REUTERS

Pro-European Union protesters pray during a rally on Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, early Jan. 16. Canada's Catholic bishops wrote to the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk last month assuring him of their prayers and solidarity.

February 17, 2014
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Local members of the Ukrainian Catholic community are praying for a peaceful resolution to the crisis in their homeland.

They held a public prayer service for Ukraine at the Legislature not long ago and parishes regularly have special prayer times for Ukraine.

"They are part of our daily prayer," said Father Stephen Wojcichowsky, the chancellor of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy. "We are praying for them at all times."

What's clear, though, is that the solution they seek for their homeland points more to Europe than to Russia. That's understandable. Most local Ukrainians have relatives in Ukraine and want the security and rule of law that Europe offers.

"We are concerned about a peaceful resolution to the difficulties," Wojcichowsky said. "We have our own Pope Francis and our patriarch who have been urging that there would be peaceful dialogue to come to a resolution to the issues instead of all of the violence that we hear about and read about."

Protests began when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich spurned an EU trade agreement last year in pursuit of closer ties with Russia. Protesters have since taken over public buildings and staged mass rallies, sometimes clashing violently with police, in the capital Kyiv and other cities.

Yanukovich, whom the protesters want to see deposed, recently made sweeping concessions to the protesters: sacking the prime minister, inviting opposition leaders to join the government and ditching anti-protest laws passed earlier in January. Concessions aside, the protests continue.

Asked whether the actions of the protesters are justified, Wojcichowsky said many of the protesters have been threated and some killed.

Any people has the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, he said. "On that alone I would support that kind of protest. Would I support violent protests? No, I wouldn't."

The Ukrainian Catholic Church is concerned for the spiritual welfare of the protesters, explained Wojcichowsky.

In Independence Square, a tent has been set up as a permanent chapel to hold daily prayer services, he said. "After each of the different Christian groups has had its services, they have an ecumenical service together to pray for a peaceful resolution for the whole situation."

Asked about the political inclination of the churches, Wojcichowsky said, "I think they would be inclined toward anything that would serve to further human dignity and peaceful expression of one's beliefs."

But Church leaders do not want to incite violence or to support one side over the other, he said. "Church leaders are careful to urge both sides to find a way that they can dialogue peacefully."

Is the government repressing the Church?

Fr. Stephen Wojcichowsky

Fr. Stephen Wojcichowsky

"There have been some threats," says Wojcichowsky. "There were threats against the Ukrainian Catholic Church to take away its legal status and that was a point of extreme concern."

As well, students have been threatened, and there have been reports of cellphones and emails being monitored, he said.

Wojcichowsky thinks the Church became a target "because they stood up and said we need to be able to find a peaceful resolution." As well, priests were in the square, hearing Confessions, praying and giving spiritual counsel to people. That could be seen as taking the side of the protesters.

"I think it's a sign of great strength by the Church," the chancellor says. "Our Church leaders speak to both sides, including the protesters, saying 'no to violence' and 'no' to provocations.

"However, anytime that you have a situation where a society is being oppressed, the people have the right to demand their freedom and to be treated with human dignity."

The crisis in Ukraine is causing a great deal of concern for Daria Porochiwnyk, a teacher at Austin O'Brien's Ukrainian bilingual program.

"It's difficult for us to watch because many of us have relatives and friends there; we have a lot of roots, a lot of connections with the homeland and so this is very troubling to us," she said. "We want the best possible outcome but there are troubling variables in this situation."

STUBBORNNESS

One variable is the stubbornness of both sides and the fact that "people have been out on Independence Square for a very long time, which raises questions as to how united the opposition is and whether there is a clear path ahead as an alternative to the current political situation," Porochiwnyk said.

"So it comes down to more than just protesting. The concern is what is the path out of this impasse that's more than two months old and how do we emerge out of it with a workable solution."

The solution Porochiwnyk would like to see includes "a constitution, a fair government organization that recognizes the law and a government that is without corruption."

She would like to see Ukraine develop a greater alliance with Europe "as geographically Ukraine is the centre of Europe."

Russia offered Ukraine $15 billion to help its economy, but as Porochiwnyk put it "it's not just about the money."

"The question is what lies in the future and where is the greatest support for the development of democratic institutions," she said. "Ukraine is a young nation and needs healthy trade and political ties with other countries that are healthy democracies."

GOV'T ATTACKS ITS PEOPLE

Slavka Shulakewych, provincial coordinator of the Ukrainian National Congress, said she and the congress members are "horrified and devastated" that the Ukrainian government would attack its own people.

"We are very upset and we are hoping that a peaceful resolve can happen and that the perpetrators of these crimes are brought to justice."

Whether Ukraine develops closer ties with Europe or Russia depends on the Ukrainian people, Shulakewych says. "But there is a great majority that wants to have closer ties with the European Union and we support them."

RUSSIAN MANIPULATION

Basilian Father Ireneus Prystajecky, assistant pastor at St. Basil's Ukrainian Church in Edmonton, said he feels "sad and a bit cynical" about the situation in Ukraine.

"It's the Russian manipulation; they have been doing it since the 1600s," he said. "They want to continue to have Ukraine as a colony. It sort of got away from them a little bit (after the fall of the Soviet Union) and they want it back."

Prystajecky would like Ukraine to develop closer ties with Europe "because Europe has a better rule of law."