Orthodox clergymen pray next to armed servicemen near Russian army vehicles outside a Ukrainian border guard post in Ukraine's Crimean region March 1.

CNS PHOTO | BAZ RATNER, REUTERS

Orthodox clergymen pray next to armed servicemen near Russian army vehicles outside a Ukrainian border guard post in Ukraine's Crimean region March 1.

March 17, 2014
CINDY WOODEN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Ukrainians must be willing to give their lives to protect the freedom of their country, says the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

"Our people and our country are currently in danger," Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, said in a March 3 statement.

"We must stand up for our country, to be ready – if necessary – to sacrifice our lives in order to protect the sovereign, free, independent, and unified state," he said in the statement distributed by the Catholic magazine Credo.

"Ukraine, unfortunately, has been pulled into a military conflict. So far no one is shooting, so far people are not dying, but it is obvious that military intervention has already begun," Shevchuk said after Russian troops entered Crimea, March 1.

In Ukraine, March 2 was Forgiveness Sunday for Eastern Catholics and members of the Orthodox churches; Lent began March 3 for Catholics and Orthodox who follow the Byzantine tradition.

Addressing members of the Church in a pastoral letter for Lent, Shevchuk and members of the Church's permanent synod said Ukrainians "enter into the great fast this year with feelings of pain, fear, suffering and trembling hope."

Months of protests sparked by a government decision to reverse a process of closer cooperation with Europe erupted in bloodshed in late February and led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.

The Russian government began military exercises along the countries' shared border and sent troops into Crimea.

In their Lenten letter, Shevchuk and members of his synod called on Catholics to use the 40 days of Lent as a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to grow closer to God and to one's neighbours.

Lent, they said, is a time to convert from sin, suspicion and hatred and take responsibility together for the future of the country.