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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with additional reporting by Vatican Radio’s Christopher Wells
KYIV/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– The head of Ukraine’s Greek-Catholic Church urged his nation on Tuesday, January 21, to unite in prayers for peace and unity amid government threats to outlaw his denomination and days of unrest between anti-government protesters and police.
“With great dismay and sadness we witness the events taking place at the moment in Kyiv,”” said Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, referring to the bloodshed that injured as many as 130 people since Sunday, January 19.
“In view of these exceptional circumstances I would like to appeal to all the faithful of the church, the Ukrainian people, and to all people of good will,” he added in a recorded statement monitored by BosNewsLife.
“In the name of God, stop the bloodshed. Violence was never the way to build a free and independent state. Bloodshed will never reconcile hearts or bring a positive outcome,” the church leader added.
He spoke while on Tuesday, January 14, a tense calm returned to the streets of Ukraine’s bruised capital Kyiv following two days of battles between riot police and pro-EU protesters, who demand the resignation of the president and government.
The Kyiv Post newspaper’s website quoted witnesses as saying three Orthodox priests were seen in what they called “a no-man’s-land” between police and protesters.
For a moment, the witnesses said, “dead calm prevailed” as protesters stopped banging with sticks on barricades. Then the drumming resumed and church bells, apparently from nearby St. Michael’s Cathedral, warned of danger.
Priests of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church have also been praying for protesters, despite warnings of the government that it would outlaw the denomination, which was already persecuted during the Soviet-era.
Questions remain when and if the large scale violence will continue as the political crisis has deepened in this former Soviet nation.
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych has pledged to talk with the opposition, setting up a cross-party commission.
Yet talks have been overshadowed by an anti-protest law that increases fines and imposes jail terms for unauthorised street protests.
Observers say the measures reflect anti-opposition legislation passed in neighbouring Russia. Critics claim Yanukovych is following in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s footsteps and building a police state.
The European Union has urged Ukraine to revise the legislation, while the United States has called the laws “undemocratic.”
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, who visited Kyiv recently, says the pro-EU protests on Kiyv’s Maidan, or Independence Square, reflect a public desire for true freedom.
“The Euromaidan protesters – students, workers, pensioners, priests, entrepreneurs, business moguls and popstars — are all calling for the same basic rights we hold dear here in the United States,” she told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.
“They want to live in a country where their government truly represents the wishes of the people and where they can safely exercise their rights without the fear of oppression,” the senior diplomat added.
In his appeal, addressed to all sectors of Ukrainian society, Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav urged the government to listen to Ukrainians. “Listen to your people, hear them, do not use violence against them or repressive mechanisms,” he said.
He asked citizens, “especially the protesters who are standing on the Maidan,” also to return to non-violent demonstrations. “I beg of you, go back to the peaceful nature of the protests. Do not let emotions get the better of you. Neither fear nor aggression nor anger was ever helpful in determining our future,” the church leader stressed.
He reminded bishops and priests to continue to “speak words of peace to hearts and minds” and to preach the Gospel of peace.
“I call everyone to prayer for peace in our country. May the Lord of peace, the Lord who has given us his peace, be with you all,” he said. His call came ahead of of what is known as the Divine Liturgy on January 22, the anniversary of Ukrainian independence in 1918.
Thousands of Ukrainians have been protesting in Kyiv since last November after Yanukovych refused to sign a long-planned political and economic treaty with the EU. Instead he opted for closer ties with Russia, accepting a 15-billion dollar bailout package from Moscow.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
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