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Priests taken by Russian forces in Ukraine still missing

Priests lead public prayer service in Ukraine

EVGEN KOTENKO | NurPhoto via AFP

John Burger - published on 12/22/23

No one knows whereabouts or condition of two Catholic and one Orthodox priest.
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Several priests in Ukraine who have been detained by Russian occupation forces are still missing, with their whereabouts unknown, a human rights website reported. 

Two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests – Fr. Ivan Levytsky and Fr. Bohdan Heleta – have been missing for 13 months. Ukrainian Orthodox Fr. Kostiantyn Maksimov has been gone seven months.

No information is known on whether they are still alive and, if so, where and why they are being held, Forum 18 reported.

Frs. Levytsky and Heleta are members of the Redemptorist order. They were picked up by the Russian National Guard in Berdyansk, a city in the Zaporizhzhia Region, on November 16, 2022, accused of storing weapons and explosives in the church. 

Initially, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church said they were being tortured. 

“These two priests decided to stay with their people in the temporarily occupied territories,” said His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head and father of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in December 2022. “They served both the Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic congregations, bringing a light of hope to people under occupation. They were arrested, then some military items were planted into the church, and they began accusing these fathers of illegally possessing weapons. Yesterday we received a message that they were being mercilessly tortured. Following the classic Stalinist repressive methods, confessing a crime they did not commit was just beaten out.”

A representative of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Exarchate of Donetsk confirmed to Forum 18 News Service that there has been no word from or about the two priests. 

Forum 18, which is named for the article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that upholds religious freedom, said that one official refused to discuss whether any criminal case has been lodged against Levytsky or Heleta. 

Church banned

After they were arrested, Russian occupation authorities forcibly closed the local Greek Catholic churches. The following month, December 2022, the Russian-installed governor of the occupied part of Zaporizhzhia Oblast banned the Greek Catholic Church and several other religious communities, Forum 18 pointed out.

As for the Orthodox priest that is still missing, an official told Forum 18 that Fr. Maksimov had not wanted the Berdyansk Diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to move to be an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In addition to the missing priests, Forum 18 detailed the story of Fr. Peter Krenický, a Greek Catholic priest from Slovakia who led a parish in southern Zaporizhzhia Region. He described how he was beaten up by six men affiliated with Russia’s FSB, in November 2022. 

The men took him into custody but later released him and ordered him to walk into unoccupied Ukraine. 

Fr. Krenický perhaps had a premonition that something like this would be happening. Before this incident, he said he had tried to prepare his parish for the time when he might not be able to stay with them. 

“I told the people that when I’m not here, when I have to leave, continue meeting for prayer, reading the Word of God, singing antiphons, [and other prayers], and singing the reading,” he said. “I asked a man from the parish to preach the Gospel.”

Tags:
Religious FreedomRussiaUkraineWar
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