Magazine article The Christian Century

Ukraine's Eastern Catholics Equip Soldiers to Fight Pro-Russia Separatists

Magazine article The Christian Century

Ukraine's Eastern Catholics Equip Soldiers to Fight Pro-Russia Separatists

Article excerpt

As the train bringing the wounded soldier home from the front line ground to a halt, the crowd on the platform burst into patriotic song. Ruslan Androsyuk's three-year-old son jumped into his arms.

Relatives and friends waved balloons and Ukrainian flags, welcoming Androsyuk back after a mine ripped through his armored personnel carrier in the Donetsk region, leaving him with a broken leg, fractured ribs, and pierced lungs.

"If it wasn't for his bulletproof vest he wouldn't have survived," said his wife, Olga, choking back tears.

But it wasn't Ukraine's government that supplied Androsyuk his gear. Like hundreds of other soldiers fighting against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, his equipment was provided by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

After decades of marginalization by both Ukraine's communist and post-communist regimes and its two dominant Orthodox churches, the UGCC is trying to establish itself as a major pro-European player by supplying government forces fighting in the east. By taking a direct role in the conflict, the UGCC hopes to win followers within a country that is becoming increasingly divided along ethnic and religious lines.

Founded in the 16th century, the UGCC is the largest of 22 eastern Catholic churches, each in full communion with Rome. (Greek was added to distinguish it from Ukraine's tiny community of Roman Catholics.)

With some 7 million followers, around 15 percent of Ukraine's population, the UGCC competes with Ukraine's two Orthodox churches--the Moscow and Kiev Patriarchates--for followers, influence, and political clout. (The Moscow branch claims 28 million adherents; the Kiev branch around half of that.)

Western and central Ukraine are home to over 3,000 UGCC parishes, the south and east have just 205. The church's centuries-old headquarters recently relocated to Kiev, the capital.

But the UGCC prides itself on having shaped Ukraine's cultural and political identity over the past 200 years.

Indeed, the church's links to Ukrainian identity spurred Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to dissolve the church in 1946.

It continued to hold secret services in cemeteries and forests, while UGCC priests delivered clandestine sermons in Soviet gulags. The UGCC also claims credit for keeping the Ukrainian language alive during communist times--not a word of Russian is uttered between sanctuary walls.

Today the UGCC wants to "assert itself beyond its far western heartland on the back of the growth in Ukrainian self-identity in more central regions of Ukraine," said Geraldine Fagan, an independent scholar on religion in the former Soviet Union and author of Believing in Russia--Religious Policy after Communism. …

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