Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych speaks Feb. 25 during a Rome news conference on the recent events in the Ukrainian capital.

CNS PHOTO | MAX ROSSI, REUTERS

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych speaks Feb. 25 during a Rome news conference on the recent events in the Ukrainian capital.

March 3, 2014
CINDY WOODEN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Three months of protests in Ukraine that ended with government snipers killing dozens of people strengthened the commitment to democracy of many Ukrainians, said the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

The country, however, remains vulnerable to further violence and division, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych told reporters in Rome Feb. 25.

"The danger that our neighbour (Russia) will provoke a civil war has not passed," Shevchuk said, adding that the protests have solidified the Ukrainian people's commitment to independence, freedom and democracy.

Snipers opened fire on protesters in Kyiv's Independence Square Feb. 19, killing at least 70 people.

President Viktor Yanukovich, who sparked the protests by deciding not to sign an agreement with the European Union but forge closer ties with Russia, left Ukraine's capital Feb. 21, and the country's parliament voted to remove him from office the same day.

"Yanukovich saw his support melting away like the snow when the sun comes out," Shevchuk told reporters at the Vatican. "The security forces disappeared and so did the president."

EYEWITNESS

The archbishop described himself "as an eyewitness" to the protests and insisted it was untrue that the protesters were "extreme nationalists."

At first, he said, they were students who dreamed of living in a "free, democratic and European" Ukraine.

When the government tried to use force to end the protest in December, he said, people from all walks of life started joining the students to say, "No to corruption, no to dictatorship, no to the denial of human dignity," and yes to citizens' right to decide the future of their country.

Throughout the protest, the archbishop said, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations supported the protesters' objectives, pleaded for them to remain peaceful and tried to mediate between them and the government.

The council, he said, includes Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim representatives.

Those seeking power see the ethnic and religious diversity in Ukraine as something to exploit for their own purposes, he said.

RELIGIOUS UNITY

That is why the council of churches issued an appeal for unity and has clearly defined as "morally unacceptable" and "a crime" the attempt to use religious or cultural differences for political gain.

Shevchuk said there is "no desire within Ukraine" to split the country, "but maybe someone from outside, seeing that he can't eat the whole pie, would want at least part of it."

An Orthodox clergyman leads a prayer service alongside a crucifix and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe Feb. 24 at the site in Kyiv where people have been killed in recent clashes protesting against the government.

CNS PHOTO | DAVID MDZINARISHVILI, REUTERS

An Orthodox clergyman leads a prayer service alongside a crucifix and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe Feb. 24 at the site in Kyiv where people have been killed in recent clashes protesting against the government.

The evening before he met the press, Shevchuk and Ukrainians working in Rome joined the Sant'Egidio Community for a prayer service for peace.

In a packed Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, tears flowed as he led the singing of the Lord's Prayer in Ukrainian.

The lay Sant'Egidio Community, known for its promotion of interreligious dialogue and peace mediation, also runs Rome's Basilica of St. Bartholomew, which serves as a shrine to the martyrs of Nazism and 20th-century communist dictatorships.

NEW MARTYRS

The basilica's side altars are filled with the personal belongings of people killed for their faith, including Ukrainian Catholics martyred after their Church was outlawed in 1946.

Shevchuk said the last time he was with Sant'Egidio members was "to give you our treasures – relics of our martyrs. Never would I have guessed that there would be new martyrs."