PHILADELPHIA — Ukrainian-American Catholics warn that a Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border poses a grave threat not only to that nation, but to Europe and democracy itself.
“It is a matter of life and death for thousands of people who will be massacred by an escalating invasion,” said Archbishop Borys Gudziak, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia. He said he expects 3-6 million refugees to flee to Western Europe.
Speaking Jan. 16 by phone with CatholicPhilly.comthe Archdiocese of Philadelphia news site, the archbishop described Ukraine as a ‘bulwark of freedom’ against what he called an authoritarian regime that is ‘moving towards totalitarianism’ under the Russian president Vladimir Poutine.
“If Russia succeeds in subduing Ukraine, there is a good chance that the process will continue in the Baltics, in Central Europe and beyond,” Gudziak said.
For Ukrainians, “the reality of the war…is not a new story,” Gudziak said. “Our priests (over there) have been burying war dead regularly for over eight years.”
Eugene Luciw, chairman of the Philadelphia branch of the Ukrainian Congress of America Committee, echoed the archbishop’s concerns.
Putin’s demands – including that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet states – show that he wants to “restore the sphere of influence that the Soviet Union had (by bringing back) the rest of Eastern Europe,” said Luciw, a member of Presentation of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.
In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, with Russian-backed separatists proclaiming “people’s republics” in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The move came 23 years after Ukraine gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, of which it was a part.
Clashes, shelling and sniper attacks have become commonplace in eastern Ukraine since the incursion. The United Nations reported nearly 1.5 million internally displaced people in 2021, with over 3,350 civilian deaths and over 7,000 civilian injuries between April 2014 and March 2020.
In recent months, about 100,000 Russian troops have massed on the Ukrainian border, 175,000 of whom are ready for a military operation in the coming weeks, according to US intelligence officials.
A January 14 cybersecurity attack, seen by regional observers as a prelude to military action, crippled about 70 Ukrainian government websites with an on-screen message warning users to “be afraid and s ‘expect the worst’.
The breach, which occurred hours after diplomatic talks between Moscow and Western allies broke down, showed signs of Russian involvement, the Kiev state security service said.
Online attacks are far from unprecedented, Gudziak said.
“The energy grid, businesses and political institutions have been subjected to malware and cyber warfare,” he explained. “And all because Ukraine wants to be free and Ukrainians insist on self-determination.”
Although “the reality of war has become part of the fabric of life”, he said, “the prospect of an escalation in war drives people into a kind of deeper anxiety”.
The US Provinces of the Sisters of the Order of Saint Basil the Great issued a statement expressing their “great concern” for the safety of 165 members of the Ukrainian Province of the Holy Trinity of the order.
“We are also concerned about a number of other religious communities in Ukraine,” the congregation said.
Leaders of Manor College, a Catholic institution in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, released a similar statement.
“The mounting of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border has the Manor College community concerned for the safety and well-being of families and individuals in Ukraine as well as peoples across Eastern Europe,” said Jonathan Peri. , president, in the press release. .
Economic and political sanctions against Russia are not necessarily sufficient to deter “what appears to be an imminent, full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Peri wrote. “While we see the wisdom of responsive transactional diplomacy, it is imperative that the United States remains firm in communicating and enforcing its resolve to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity.”
Former college administrator Leonard Mazur told CatholicPhilly.com that his family members in western Ukraine felt like they were “living with a comet about to collide with ( them)”.
Gudziak described the logic behind Russian aggression as “pretty simple”.
“Ukraine is one of the democratic success stories after the fall of communism. And a democratic Ukraine with a free press, a growing economy, vibrant ecumenical relations, a political system modified by the vote of its citizens, and which sits on the borders of Russia, is a great threat to the system that the president Putin put in place,” he said.
As a “witness to the freedom that Putin crushed in Russia,” the archbishop said, Ukraine offers a visible alternative to a system that, “although it is not classical communism,” ” nevertheless rejects fundamental Christian anthropology” and “the teaching of who a human being is.”
“Our faith, the teaching of our church, the Holy Scriptures, which are the basis of Western democracy, have instilled in us a deep awareness that we are children of God,” he said.
This dignity “cannot become a function of a goal,” he continued. “You can’t kill millions of people leading humanity into some kind of utopian future, as the communist system has promised.”
Paradoxically, says Gudziak, Putin’s “colonialist, imperialist plan” is being endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church, with which Mikhail Gorbachev reestablished relations in 1988 when he was general secretary of the Communist Party of Russia. ‘Soviet Union.
Putin himself professes to be deeply Orthodox, but Gudziak said the alliance between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian state is essentially “a fight for greatness and a fight for territory” based on a nostalgic desire for “glory imperial past”, both “political and political”. ecclesiastical.”
Gudziak also said that the Russian people themselves “are fed a fable” that Western nations seek to humiliate Russia, which in turn must “flex (its) muscles” and “recover what it has lost”, Ukraine being “objective n°1”. .”
The propaganda also aims to “sow doubt in the minds and hearts” of Westerners, leading them to dismiss the Ukraine crisis as too complicated to understand, the archbishop said, urging Christians in particular to “look at the reality the light of the gospel and know the facts.”
Donating to the American Bishops’ annual collection for the church in Central and Eastern Europe helps “people suffering from the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine,” he said.
Above all, Gudziak stressed that prayer is crucial to resolving the Ukrainian crisis.
“We Christians recognize that God is the Lord of history and that his grace has worked miracles in human affairs,” he said. “The collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago is an example of this. This did not happen through war, nor through armed conflict. It happened peacefully and, I would say, miraculously.
Sister Basilian Ann Laszok, director of religious education for the Ukrainian Catholic Church Eparchy of St. Josaphat, based in Parma, Ohio, said she is “constantly praying for all our brothers and sisters in Ukraine who face the threat of aggression against their sovereignty and independence.”
His prayers transcend all borders.
“I also pray for the aggressors, that they will see the light of Christ and defuse in order to restore peace for all in eastern Ukraine,” Laszok said.
Christian is senior content producer for CatholicPhilly.com, the news site for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.