Leader of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church issues letter as Russia sends in trucks.
The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church outlined the persecution of Catholics and other religious groups in Ukraine and criticized the Russian Orthodox Church for echoing the Russian line on the situation in the east of the country.
Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halych, said in a letter Friday that for months, Ukrainians have been on an "arduous pilgrimage from post-Soviet fear to freedom and God-given dignity.” He described the religious discrimination to which Churches and religious communities have been exposed in annexed Crimea and in the eastern war zone. Muslim Tatars have been especially targeted, while Greek and Roman Catholic ministries, Orthodox parishes of the Kyivan Patriarchate, and Jewish communities have also been menaced.
“Unfortunately, the beleaguered Ukrainian Catholics, Greek and Roman, faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate and Protestants in the east of Ukraine are further endangered by the rhetoric of the Orthodox leadership in Russia, which is becoming increasingly similar to the propaganda of Russian political authorities and media,” he said.
Statements from the Russian Orthodox Church, he said, have defamed and libeled Greek Catholics and Ukrainian Orthodox of the Kyivan Patriarchate. “They are held responsible for the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine and are accused of generating the warfare, especially the violence against Orthodox clergy and faithful endured as a result of military operations.” In his letter, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav “strongly rejects” those accusations.
The archbishop’s comments came as Ukraine prepared to celebrate Independence Day on Sunday and as tensions escalated with neighboring Russia.
On Friday, Moscow sent 130 trucks into Ukraine, drawing a sharp rebuke from Kiev, which called it a "direct invasion." The U.S. and NATO condemned the move as well.
The trucks, part of a convoy of 260 vehicles, entered Ukraine without permission after being held up at the border for a week amid fears the mission was a Kremlin ploy to help the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
By late afternoon, trucks had reached the city of Luhansk, whose war-reduced population of a quarter-million people has suffered under intense fighting over the past several weeks between Ukrainian forces and the separatists.
Russia said the white-tarped vehicles were carrying food, water, generators and sleeping bags.
The arrival of the trucks instantly raised the stakes in the crisis: An attack on the convoy could give Russia a pretext to intervene more deeply in the fighting.
And the convoy’s mere presence could block further battlefield advances by Ukrainian forces, which have reported substantial inroads against the rebels over the past week.
In sending in the convoy, Russia said it had lost patience with Ukraine’s stalling tactics and claimed that soon "there will no longer be anyone left to help" in Luhansk, where weeks of heavy shelling have cut off power, water and phone service and made food scarce.
Ukraine has long accused Russia of supporting and arming the rebels, a charge Russia denies. Yet NATO said Friday that, since mid-August, it has seen multiple reports of direct involvement of Russian forces in Ukraine.
It also said Russian artillery is being used against Ukraine’s forces, both from across the border and from inside Ukraine. In addition, NATO said it has seen "transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery, to separatists."
At the United Nations in New York, Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin hotly denied any Russian troops were inside Ukraine.
Moscow’s decision to move unilaterally, without Red Cross involvement, raised questions about its intentions.
Suspicions were running high that the humanitarian operation may instead be aimed at halting Kiev’s momentum on the battlefield.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk declared that the trucks were half-empty and were not going to deliver aid but would instead be used to create a provocation. He said Russia would somehow attack the convoy itself, creating an international incident.
Ukrainian security services chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko called the convoy a "direct invasion."
NATO’s secretary-general condemned Russia for sending in a "so-called humanitarian convoy." Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Russia committed "a blatant breach" of its international commitments and "a further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty."
AP journalists following the convoy across rough country roads heard the trucks’ contents rattling and sliding around Friday, confirming that many vehicles were only partially loaded.
Nalyvaichenko said the men operating the trucks were Russian military personnel trained to drive combat vehicles, tanks and artillery.
He insisted, however, that Ukraine would not shell the convoy.
The Red Cross, which had planned to escort the convoy to assuage fears that it was a cover for a Russian invasion, said it had not received enough security guarantees to do so, as shelling had continued overnight. Four troops were killed and 23 wounded in a 24-hour period in eastern Ukraine, the government reported Friday.
The government said it had authorized the entry of only 35 trucks. But the number of Russian vehicles seen passing through was clearly way beyond that.
International monitors said that as of midday, 134 trucks, 12 support vehicles and one ambulance had crossed into Ukraine.
In announcing its decision to act, the Russian Foreign Ministry said: "There is increasingly a sense that the Ukrainian leaders are deliberately dragging out the delivery of the humanitarian load until there is a situation in which there will no longer be anyone left to help."
It added: "We are warning against any attempts to thwart this purely humanitarian mission."
Rebel forces took advantage of Ukraine’s promise not to shell the convoy to drive on the same country road as the trucks. Some 20 green military supply vehicles — flatbed trucks and fuel tankers — were seen traveling in the opposite direction, along with smaller rebel vehicles.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine began in mid-April, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. It has killed over 2,000 people and forced 340,000 to flee, according to the United Nations.
Concluding his letter, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav says, “Ukraine needs the effective support of the global Christian community and support of all people of good will. In a media context rife with propaganda we ask you to evaluate information critically. We need your prayer, your discernment, your good words and effective deeds. Silence and inaction will lead to further tragedy. The fate of MA Flight 17 is an example of what may happen if the terrorist activity is allowed to continue.”
Separately, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Tetiana Izhevska, expressed gratitude to Pope Francis for his personal attention and concern about the crisis in Eastern Ukraine and his continued appeals for peace and dialogue to resolve the conflict there.
Izhevska spoke with Vatican Radio Friday about her government’s views on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and said Kiev believes the situation remains very dangerous with a high risk of a direct Russian invasion.
“Russia,” she said, “is fighting an undeclared war on Ukraine” through its armed support for the pro-Russian rebels…. The probability of a direct Russian invasion is still high.”
At the same time, according to the ambassador, “it’s evident that economic sanctions remain the only efficient tool to influence Russian behavior.”
The Associated Press and Vatican Radio contributed to this report.