ROME – Since Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church is the most persecuted Catholic Church in modern history, its spiritual leader has a special credibility when speaking to Christians around the world today who suffer similar violence and intolerance: “Our enemies can try, but they won’t kill the Church, because it is the body of Christ, and He can bring it back from the ashes.”

“I know, I saw it happen,” said Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), the largest of the 22 Eastern churches loyal to Rome.

Shevchuk spoke with journalists on Friday, ahead of a visit Pope Francis will pay on Sunday to the minor basilica of Santa Sofia, which served as the mother church of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church while St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv was occupied in the Communist era.

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During the years of the Soviet occupation of Ukraine, the UGCC was the largest illegal religious body in the world. In a span of six decades, it saw almost 3,000 clerics killed in Siberian gulags. Per capita, no other church produced a greater share of martyrs during the Soviet era, and the political leadership on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain was convinced the Church could be killed.

“Nikita Khrushchev would speak like this: ‘Communism is on the horizon, and there will be no more religion, grandmothers will die, and the church will come to an end’,” Shevchuk said to a question posed by Crux.

“But then they realized grandmothers don’t die. They always remain standing. Khrushchev has died, and grandmothers still stand.”

In November 1991, after driving 3.5 million faithful underground and confiscating virtually every church property that mattered, a post-Soviet Ukraine allowed the Greek Catholic Church to reemerge. It rose from the catacombs to become a miracle, and today it claims more than 5 million faithful and 3,000 priests, with 100 new priests ordained each year, and more than 800 seminarians.

Yet the fall of the Berlin wall did not signify an end of the persecution against Christians.

According to the latest report by the global papal charity Aid to the Church in Need, today persecution of Christians is worse than at any time in history. The study, released in Oct. 2017, found that in some of Christianity’s birthplaces, including Iraq and Syria, the Catholic Church faces the possibility of imminent wipe-out.

It was Christians in the Middle East to whom Shevchuk was asked to direct a message, and he said he would by answering from his own experience.

“In the time of the Soviet Union, they were all convinced that they could murder the Church, make it disappear,” he said. “Yet they couldn’t. No earthly political power can kill the Church. Because it’s the Body of Christ.”

In the Ukrainian case, he said, where grandmothers are the cornerstone of families, during the occupation they created a space for the domestic church, and they were capable of sharing the faith. Hence, when the rigidity of the regime began to crumble, the UGCC came out from hiding.

“It was a miracle, and I was a witness to that miracle,” Shevchuk said.

Born in 1970, he first joined a group of young men who were in the underground seminary, and he had a very particular experience of what the priesthood was.

“I still remember the small groups of the clandestine Church … For me, a priest was an unknown man, who arrived in the middle of the night, prayed in the house with the doors and windows closed, and left,” he said.

“I never thought that a Catholic priest would have the opportunity to preach in public,” Shevchuk added.

Shevchuk was chosen to lead the UGCC when he was 41 years old, in 2011. Like Pope Francis, he was found “at the end of the earth,” in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he served as the apostolic administrator of the Eparchy of Santa María del Patrocinio.

He was elected Major Archbishop of the UGCC to replace Lubomyr Husar, who much like Francis’s predecessor, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, broke with tradition by retiring as head of the church.

Another memory Shevchuk shared of his years in seminary was clandestinely listening to Vatican Radio, which allowed him to learn about the existence of bishops and a pope.

“But for us, the figure of the pope was mythical, not real … It was out of our imagination to think that we could leave the confinement of the Soviet Union and study in Rome, so encountering the pope is like encountering the rising Christ,” Shevchuk said.

“But nothing is impossible for those who believe.”

His message for persecuted Christians around the world is for them to give witness of their faith, but to remember that the Church “belongs to Jesus Christ.”

“To make it resurface is divine work, and God manifests himself through human history, but above all, through the authentic witness of those who believe,” Shevchuk said. “This is what happened to our church, and it will happen everywhere.”

He also noted that there are “other kinds of persecution,” beyond the physical one Christians are victims of in the Middle East and many more countries, including North Korea, China, Nigeria or India. There’s ideological persecution and legislative persecution too, Shevchuk said.

Christians, he added, tend to think that they need to adapt, even adopt norms or ideas looking for “a compromise.”

“I believe that we have to dialogue with everyone, but remain being ourselves,” he sad.

“Jesus Christ, dead and risen, is the head of the Church, and he will protect those who are faithful, even if today we have to suffer, or even die,” Shevchuk said. “But on the day of our resurrection, he will provide.”

Pope Francis’s Sunday visit to Santa Sofia

This will be the third visit by a pope to the church, dedicated to Holy Wisdom, Sancta Sophia in Latin, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II visited it one time each, in the 1960s, when it was being built, and in 1984, on the day of the death of Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Catholic Church who had been exiled after spending almost two decades in a Siberian Gulag.

Francis has long had ties with the UGCC, so when Shevchuk invited him to visit the church in Rome, the pope readily agreed. During his visit, the pope is expected to tour the church, adorned with magnificent mosaics covering virtually every inch of its interior. The archbishop told journalists that he also expects Francis to go down to the crypt, to venerate an old mentor of his.

Late Bishop Stepan Chmil was a Salesian priest ministering in Buenos Aires when young Jorge Mario Bergoglio attended a Salesian-run school. According to Shevchuk, the priest would wake the future pope early in the morning, and have him serve as an altar boy while Chmil celebrated the Sacred Liturgy in the Byzantine rite.

Francis has spoken about Chmil more than once.

Addressing a group of professors, students and alumni from the Pontifical Ukrainian College of St. Josephat, a seminary in Rome, last November, the pope said he valued the lessons he learned from Chmil.

“It did me so much good because he spoke to me about the persecution, sufferings, the ideologies that persecuted the Christians” in Ukraine under communism.

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Chmil died in Rome, and was buried in Santa Sophia. When Shevchuk opened the cause to declare him a saint, the pope was among those who gave testimony for it.

The church continues to be a major pastoral center for the close to half a million Ukrainians who’ve had to flee their country.

The archbishop also told journalists that he hopes Francis’s visit to the church will be a “prophetic step, that might lead [Francis’s] feet towards the Ukrainian land.”

The conflict with Russia and the humanitarian crisis

Speaking about what he describes as the ongoing Russian occupation of an estimated seven percent of Ukrainian territory, Shevchuk said that “it hurts us to see that no one talks about this conflict anymore,” quoting Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who recently called it “the forgotten war.”

Ukraine today has millions of refugees, both internally displaced and in diaspora, including an estimated half million living in Italy, though many came after the end of the first Russian occupation.

The victims of the conflict, he said, are counted in the millions. Apologizing for the visible emotion that overcame him, the prelate said that as he spoke “I don’t see statistics, but the people I encounter… the children who’ve lost their parents, the soldiers who are missing limbs.”

Asked about the root of the conflict, he gave a “philosophical answer,” saying that he believes it’s the same thing that is causing other conflicts around the world: “The incapacity political leaders- and also religious leaders- have to dialogue. We have many prejudices against dialogue.”

In an attempt to show themselves as strong, “as machos,” Shevchuk said, leaders impose their views on others subjugating those who are weaker, which in turn leads to the fall of the international security system because international agreements are not respected.

“I believe in building bridges, dialoguing, encountering people … that is the methodology to build peace that John Paul II gifted us,” Shevchuk said. “He traveled across the world, bringing down walls and encountering people.”

An appeal to the international community

Shevchuk told journalists he had three requests for the international community: to be international, to be a community, and to remember the Human Rights Charter, signed 70 years ago.

“Many times, we speak of an international community, but it’s more a collection of international selfish people, each of whom is protecting its own interests,” he said.

Explaining the “international” request, he noted that we live at a time in which countries close in on themselves, “selfishly proclaiming that their economic interests have more value than human life.”

On the Human Rights Charter, he said that everyone talks about it, but no one can quote it. To properly mark its anniversary, Shevchuk said, “we should talk about human rights and human responsibilities.”