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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
KYIV/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Ukraine’s government has threatened to outlaw the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) for holding prayer services with opposition protesters.
Amid public pressure, President Viktor Yanukovich later pledged to respect religious rights. His office quoted him as saying “People must have a right to pray wherever they wish.”
Yet his office acknowledged that “current legislation provides for the necessity of the official permission for a worship service unless it is held in a specially designated place.”
And, despite Yanukovich promise to soften legislation, uncertainty remained Friday, January 17, as his supporters voted for controversial legislation banning mass protests, including those where priests have been praying.
The law makes blockading public buildings punishable by up to five years imprisonment, while those wearing masks or helmets face a fine or an administrative arrest.
Even unauthorized installation of tents, stages or amplifiers in public places will be punished by a fine of some $640 or by up to 15 days in detention.
Those providing facilities or equipment for unauthorized meetings face a fine of some $1,300 or detention of up to 10 days.
The law followed clashes in which several deputies were injured, and with little or no procedure. Thursday’s vote came was expected to make it more difficult for UGCC priests to publicly pray and share their faith with protesters, who demand closer ties with the European Union.
The government threatened to outlaw the church with the Ministry of Culture saying its priests had been “breaking the law” by holding religious services outside a place of worship.
The church leader, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, defended the open air prayer and church services, comparing the threats to the Soviet era.
He told authorities in an open letter that “the times have long passed when church buildings were ruined and priests serving their faithful were arrested or even killed.”
Bishop Shevchuk said he regrets that the threats come at a time when the denomination remembers the 25th anniversary since it was legalized in the Soviet Union.
The UGCC follows Orthodox traditions but is loyal to the Vatican. It was banned in the Soviet era but has become the third largest confession in Ukraine since the country’s independence in 1991.
The denomination has about 5.5 million followers in Ukraine, around 12 percent of its population of 46 million, most of them living in the western regions, according to official estimates. Some 1.5 believers are among the Ukrainian diaspora in Europe, the United States and Australia.
The United States has urged for a dialogue between the government, religious leaders, the opposition and non-governmental organizations, explained Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Viktoria Nuland, to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
“Like the vast majority of Ukrainians, the United States and our partners in the European Union want to see the current stand-off resolved politically, democratically and above all, peacefully,” she said.
“This last point applies to the government and protesters alike, and we condemn the actions of rioters outside a Kyiv court building on January 10.” Nuland stressed.
“However, the use of violence and acts of repression carried out by government security forces and their surrogates have compelled us to make clear publicly and privately to the government of Ukraine that we will consider a broad range of tools at our disposal if those in positions of authority in Ukraine employ or encourage violence against their own citizens,” she added.
The senior diplimat also recalled last week’s clashes between protesters and riot police in which a former Interior minister was among those injured.
Pope Francis has expressed his prayerful support for the Ukrainian people, saying he will pray for “peace and harmony”in the former Soviet republic.