After more than 14 months of near-total silence, it appears that two Catholic priests missing in Ukraine are being held in Russian “investigative prisons,” according to a human rights organization.
“One of the two Greek Catholic priests seized by Russia’s National Guard (Rosgvardiya) in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Berdyansk in November 2022 appears to have been transferred illegally to Russia,” Forum 18 News Service reported Friday.
Redemptorist Frs. Ivan Levytsky and Bohdan Heleta were arrested on November 16, 2022. In the first weeks after their seizure, the leadership of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Kyiv warned that the priests were being tortured, probably to get them to make a confession. The occupation forces claim to have found weapons and explosives, as well as extremist literature in the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin in Berdyansk, where the priests served. The Donetsk Exarchate (diocese) of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has strongly denied all the Russian occupation forces’ claims.
Berdyansk, a small city on the Sea of Azov, southwest of Mariupol, has been under Russian military occupation since February 27, 2022.
Fr. Levytsky is being held in an “investigation prison” in Russia’s Rostov Region, and Fr. Heleta is being held in an investigation prison in Simferopol in Russian-occupied Crimea, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group told Forum 18.
The Donetsk Exarchate told Forum 18 that it can confirm only that the two priests are in Russian captivity.
“The exact location is not known,” a spokesman for the exarchate said. “There is different information, but it is unconfirmed. The fathers are constantly included in the exchange lists [for prisoners held by Russia and Ukraine], but so far without results.
“Stayed with their people”
Evhen Zakharov of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group said January 29 that no trials had yet taken place.
The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, has called for the release of the two priests, saying they were framed.
“These two priests decided to stay with their people in the temporarily occupied territories,” he said just weeks after their disappearance. “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 temple, 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. As a result, they are in danger of death every day.”
Forum 18 News Service is named after Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Forum 18 works for freedom of religion or belief for all on the basis of these articles, particularly in countries of the former Soviet Union.