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Russian occupation forces close more Catholic Churches in Ukraine

A Church destroyed by a Russian attack on the village of Bohorodychne in Ukraine’s Donetsk region is pictured Feb. 13, 2024. (OSV News photo/Vladyslav Musiienko, Reuters)

Russian occupation forces in Ukraine continue to crack down on Catholics, with one militant group sealing off Ukrainian Greek Catholic Churches in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

The Kyiv-based Institute for Religious Freedom reported March 23 that since the beginning of the year, Russian militants calling themselves “Cossacks” have seized UGCC Churches and adjacent property, while barring “believers of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to enter the Churches and the territory for prayers and worship.”

Faithful have appealed to local officials of the unrecognized DPR, or “Donetsk People’s Republic,” a self-proclaimed entity that – along with the also unrecognized adjacent “Luhansk People’s Republic” – has formed part of Russia’s ongoing occupation of Ukraine since 2014.

Russian occupation officials in Donetsk have so far not responded to the requests for restored access, leaving Greek Catholics “deprived of the opportunity to visit their Churches and perform divine services,” the IRF said.

Priests who had served the sealed Churches “were expelled from the occupied territories,” the institute noted.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church advised it now has no clergy left in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, said Felix Corley of Forum 18, a news service that partners with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in defending freedom of religion, thought and conscience.

South of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests were seized from their Church in Berdyansk in November 2022, one of whom now appears to have been illegally transferred to Russia, according to a human rights activist.

Redemptorist Father Ivan Levitsky is likely being held in an investigation prison in Russia’s Rostov region, according to Yevhen Zakharov of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.

Father Levitsky’s fellow Redemptorist Father Bohdan Geleta, who served with him at the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in Berdyansk, is reported to be held in a separate investigation prison in Russian-occupied Crimea. Father Geleta is known to suffer from an acute form of diabetes.

Shortly after Father Levitsky and Father Geleta were captured, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said he had received “the sad news that our priests are being tortured without mercy.”

Both priests had refused to leave their parishioners following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, which continued attacks launched in 2014 against Ukraine.

In December 2022, Yevgeny Balitsky, the Kremlin-installed head of the occupied Zaporizhzhia’s military-civil administration, declared that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church had been banned and its property was to be transferred to his administration.

Also outlawed by the order were the Knights of Columbus and Caritas, the official humanitarian arm of the worldwide Catholic Church.

The order accused UGCC communities of “active participation … in the Zaporizhzhia area in activities (of) extremist organizations and propaganda of neo-Nazi ideas.”

The document said that the Knights of Columbus were “associated with the intelligence services of the United States and the Vatican.”

Two joint reports from the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights have determined Russia’s invasion constitutes genocide, with Ukraine reporting more than 128,551 war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine since February 2022.

Over the last two years, Russian forces “have been responsible for damaging or destroying at least 660 Churches and other religious structures, including at least 206 belonging to Protestants,” said Russian history expert Mark Elliott at a Feb. 29 panel discussion hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The lack of religious freedom in Russia is now being spread to Ukraine,” said fellow panelist Metropolitan Archbishop Borys A. Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia during the center’s presentation.

“In Russia, religious institutions are able to function if they support Putin and the government,” said Archbishop Gudziak. “In the occupied territories those that don’t support actively the occupying regime are destined for annihilation.”