ROME – While tens of millions from around the globe may be tuning in to the World Cup in Russia starting tomorrow, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church won’t be among them. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine’s region of Crimea and Donbas in 2014, the country has been in a political and diplomatic crisis, and Ukrainians recently decided to boycott the games.
Yet despite rising tensions, the Ukrainian prelate remains hopeful.
“For us, for the simple people, for the Christians, reconciliation means not only prayer for reconciliation, but also effective acts of reconciliation, because that is how we construct a peace for the next generation,” said Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuck, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, in an interview with a small group of reporters.
“Reconciliation doesn’t mean to reconcile with the aggressor,” the archbishop added. “Reconciliation doesn’t mean to be reconciled with lies, or fake news.”
Shevchuck made his remarks after a closed-door roundtable at the tightly secured U.S. embassy to the Holy See in Rome on Wednesday. The event was hosted by U.S. Ambassador Callista Gingrich, and focused on discussing the challenges to religious freedom worldwide with the participation of senior Vatican officials and diplomats.
The meeting took place ahead of the U.S. government’s first-ever “Ministerial,” which will happen in Washington July 25 -26, aimed at advancing religious freedom. It will be presented by Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, who has vowed that the United States “will not stand by as spectators” facing violations of religious minorities’ rights.
According to Shevchuck, the meeting in Rome offered an “outstanding and unique possibility” to present the message of the people in Ukraine, as media attention has slowly dwindled and moved on.
“I felt a huge and interested support for the Ukrainian people, for the Ukraine which is affected by this foreign aggression,” the archbishop said.
In her speech, Gingrich didn’t pull punches: “Today, Russia ranks among the worst violators of religious freedom and human rights. There is no sign that its persecution of religious minorities and foreign missionaries is coming to an end,” she said.
“What is perhaps most troubling is that this repression is not limited to its own borders,” Gingrich added.
The ambassador said that regions in Ukraine occupied by Russia are suffering “a deterioration of human rights and religious freedom,” and that religious minorities – including Catholics, Jews and Orthodox denominations – are subject to “beatings, detention and kidnapping.”
Gingrich said that through sanctions and security assistance, “America’s support for Ukraine remains absolute.”
Overall, the summit voiced a hard line on Russia, which this month will be at the center of global attention as it hosts the FIFA soccer world cup.
As for Shevchuk, in the past he’s emphasized the importance of dialogue and forgiveness between the parties at war for the future of Ukraine. While he praised Gingrich for her comments, he emphasized the need for reconciliation.
“I spoke not on behalf of the Ukrainian state, not on behalf of politicians, but on behalf of simple people,” he said, emphasizing the importance of making Ukrainians participants in debates that will determine its outcome.
“Very often the future of our nations is discussed without us — negotiations are without us, but about us. I think it’s the biggest mistake,” Shevchuck said. “Ukraine is not supposed to be an object, but a subject of such a process.”
Last Monday, the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany met in Berlin to discuss how to bring an end to the conflict, which since 2014 has cost more than 10,000 lives. Topics discussed included the implementation of the Minsk agreement to bring peace to the region, the ceasefire and bringing in UN peacekeepers.
The U.S.’s position concerning Russia has been unclear under this administration and while Gingrich was unafraid to hold the country accountable for its transgressions, President Donald Trump has been questioned for his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and even suggested that Russia be reinstated in the G7 once again making it the G8.
“When Trump is speaking, he’s interested in dialogue, it’s something he wants to engage in,” Aud-Frances McKernan, the political and economic officer at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, told reporters. “But he also called our international partners, everyone, to be engaged in dealing with occupied Crimea and protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and Ukraine itself from aggression from Russia.”
Even the Vatican and Pope Francis, have offered olive branches to Russia in the past, both in an attempt to recover ecumenical relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and in light of common approaches with Russia to issues such as the Middle East.
But according to Shevchuck, the Argentine pope remains a beacon of hope for the oppressed people living in Ukraine.
“The special charism of Pope Francis, and his constant attention to the situation in Ukraine, his mission to help those who are victims of war, it helps to uncover and reveal the war in Ukraine and do everything, all our efforts, in order to stop bloodshed, to stop the military action in the eastern Ukraine,” he said.
Ecumenical dialogue has been a cornerstone of Francis’s diplomacy, especially in an attempt to promote peace, and according to the Ukrainian prelate, dialogue among the Christian denominations that coexist in the country is “crucial” in order to end the war.
Shevchuck spoke of profound divisions within the Orthodox Church that have slowed ecumenical progress in Ukraine, yet said the violence may have changed the equation. Years of conflict, he said, have forced the churches to come to terms with the fact that cooperation is essential for national security.
Beyond encounters promoted by NGOs in Ukraine, “there is no official dialogue among the different Orthodox churches, and there is no official dialogue between Catholic churches and our Orthodox brothers,” Shevchuck said, adding that this is a cause for “regret.”
“I believe that there is no alternative to dialogue, because if you don’t have a dialogue, [you’ll have] confrontation,” he added.
Despite its divisions, religion remains a powerful force in Ukraine. Quoting the country’s president, Ambassador Tetyana Yizhevska, Ambassador to the Holy See from Ukraine, said that “there are two things in which Ukrainians believe in the most — the army and Church. The army protects our soil, our language protects our heart, and our Church protects our soul,” she said.
But it won’t be politics, diplomats or the army to bring peace to Ukraine, Shevchuck said, but God alone.
“The matter of fact is that humans can start war, but they cannot end war. Those who start war often become the slaves of war. Only God is the source of peace,” he said, while adding that “there is no peace without justice.”
The prelate emphasized the importance of not surrendering to “a conversion to hate,” while still asking for justice after years of bloodshed. When asked if he remains hopeful after so long, he answered “of course! We’re Christians!” though he admitted to not knowing what path will finally lead to peace.
“Please help us to establish a peace or ceasefire at least and then we can work together in order to prevent other escalations in the world,” he said.