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‘We’ll be killed’: Ukrainian Catholic Church faces ‘eradication’ if Russia wins, archbishop warns

Smoke rises over a residential building after a Russian missile and drone strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 29, 2023. (OSV News photo/Danylo Pavlov, Reuters)

PHILADELPHIA OSV News) — As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine reaches the two-year mark Feb. 24, OSV News sat down with Metropolitan Archbishop Borys A. Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, recently returned from his latest visit to Ukraine, for his insights on the war.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OSV News: After two years of full-scale invasion and 10 years of aggression by Russia, how would you describe the overall outlook of the Ukrainian people?

Archbishop Gudziak: It’s really quite amazing, because there’s so much devastation, there’s so much death, there’s so much displacement, and yet the people are pretty clear in their resolve. … There are principles we have to defend, and we really don’t have any choice, because wherever there is Russian occupation, there is genocide. So, if we don’t defend ourselves, we’ll be killed.

We know we have to get the job done. We need help to get that job done, but we know nobody is going to send troops to help us in Ukraine.

We gave up our nuclear arsenal unilaterally in 1994 (under the Budapest Memorandum), receiving security pledges and guarantees from the United States, Great Britain and Russia, who (promised) not only to not invade or demonstrate aggression, but to not even use economic power to shake the sovereignty or independence of Ukraine. … You had the global community applauding the first nuclear disarmament.

(But now) Ukraine’s territorial integrity, its sovereignty has been violated brutally. Ukrainians realize they have to defend themselves and they will do so.

OSV News: Western support has begun to lag over the last year, with some U.S. lawmakers actively opposing aid to Ukraine. How would you respond to those calls?

Archbishop Gudziak: It’s so important to understand what the consequences of further Russian occupation may be. … We’re at (approximately) 17% of Ukrainian territory under occupation. That has led to 8 million people crossing the border (with 2 million since returning). If, let’s say, even half of Ukraine came under a Russian occupation, you will have at least 10 more million refugees.

And the displacement of people, but also the (disruption) of global political, diplomatic, economic, food (and ecological) systems … has led to a hit on all of us.

Your pocketbook has been hit by the Russian invasion. Oil prices, food prices went up because of the Russian invasion. Hungry people are starving in Africa or the Middle East because of the Russian invasion.

If there’s an advance, it’s going to hit you in your pocket. It’s going to further affect and destabilize global security. And it will empower all the ruffians of the world, whether it’s North Korea, Iran or people who are not yet showing that kind of aggression, but (are) just waiting for a signal that nobody’s watching anyway.

I appeal to conservative Catholics who are concerned about subjectivism, who understand what Pope Benedict was saying when (as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) he observed that we’re moving into a period of the dictatorship of relativism. This is what (Russian Federation President Vladimir) Putin wants. He’s not aiming to convince you of Russian righteousness. He just wants you to doubt democracy. He wants you to doubt the truth, to believe in nothing. And this is diabolical.

(Putin) has killed for almost a quarter-century — the vicious bombing of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya (in February 2000); the death of journalists and political opposition figures that have happened under his rule; the attack, invasion and annexation of part of Georgia in 2008. In 2024, this war (in Ukraine) is not two years old. It’s 10 years old.

We cannot be naive about this. Dear fellow Catholics — your fellow Catholics, your fellow Christians, Protestants and others will not be able to pray freely. Their churches will be closed (and) taken over by the Russian Orthodox Church, as it did with Ukrainian Catholic churches after the liquidation of (its) visible structures. The church can never be liquidated because it’s the Body of Christ. But the persecution of the church is something that follows us since the time of Christ, since the time of the Apostles.

I don’t know if people realize that (many of the popes in the first four centuries of the church) were martyrs. It’s not impossible that this godless brutalism can move into the Western European continent. It’s not impossible that a godless rule, an atheist, aggressive, anti-democratic rule could be in Rome and the bishops of Rome could again become martyrs.

There is no freedom of religion in Russia. Even the Russian Orthodox Church is fully shackled. And the head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, uses the language of Islamic militants — of jihad — to encourage participation in the war.

There’s not a single Ukrainian Catholic parish registered in Russia. Certain (faith) confessions are already illegal.

OSV News: Two joint reports from the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights have concluded that Russia has breached the Genocide Convention. Yet the 153 nations party to the convention have been slow to take action. Why?

Archbishop Gudziak: People don’t understand because they use their own categories. They judge or perceive on the basis of their own experience. We have not had an occupation in the United States, really, in historical memory. We haven’t had bombs falling on us, except for 9/11, for example, or isolated acts, which really traumatize us.

There are bombs falling on civilian structures throughout Ukraine every single day — bombs, rockets, drones. And this is something we (in the U.S.) cannot relate to. If there’s a bomb or a mass shooting with 20 people killed, it is a great tragedy. And it happens at home, it’s close. But there are probably between 300 and 400 people killed in Ukraine every day. That includes the soldiers on both sides.

A lot of people (in the U.S.) say, “We don’t want to go into those long-term wars.” And they compare. But Iraq and Afghanistan are not Ukraine and Russia — it’s a bad comparison. Ukrainians are not giving up to the Taliban. They’re not running away. The president is there. The people are there. The government is there. The parliament is there. A million Ukrainians volunteered, joined the armed forces in the last two years. One million people are putting their lives at risk.

OSV News: How does the current war fit into the long record of Russian aggression against Ukraine and in particular the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church?

Archbishop Gudziak: It’s the present image of what happened in Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka, Mariupol (sites of recent Russian mass atrocities in Ukraine). But it’s also the history. There were … millions killed by wars, genocide and genocidal policies like the Holodomor or the Holocaust.

All of this at the hands, in one form or another, of totalitarian powers, or wars that were generated by empires.

Putin has said there is no such thing really as Ukraine, there isn’t a separate independent Ukrainian people, (and) the Ukrainian language is just a dialect. All of that will be erased, and it’s not a question of hypothesis.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church gets eradicated as a legal, visible entity every time there’s a Russian occupation. It happened in the 18th century. It happened a few times in the 19th century as the Russian Empire grew or consolidated its hold on territory after the partitions of Poland. The Tsarists … came to Lviv (and) arrested and deported the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church to Russia. The Soviets did it in the 20th century.

And now we see it (happening) in the occupied territories.

OSV News: What can Catholics do to support Ukraine at this moment?

Archbishop Gudziak: First of all, we should pray. The Lord is the Lord of history. … And I’ve seen too many miracles. Our church was illegal for 45 years … it was decimated. Today, 35 years later, there are 3,000 priests again, and we have the youngest episcopacy and clergy in the world.

Second, be informed. There’s a lot of disinformation. Be careful of the Tucker Carlsons of the world.

Ukrainians are very grateful to all who pray, who advocate and who help. There’s a special respect for America.

(Ukrainians are) going to fight and defend God-given principles, God-given dignity, so that our children and grandchildren don’t have to suffer. … We have to stop (Russia’s aggression), no matter what the cost.

Gina Christian is a multimedia reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @GinaJesseReina.

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