It was late January and the uprising in Kiev had turned bloody. Negotiations between the protesters and the Yanukovych government had proven futile. And the Ministry of Culture had just days before threatened to punish the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church if its clergy kept praying with protesters in Independence Square.
Demonstrators had no trust in their government, but the head of the church felt they still had faith in their religious leaders.
“For us, that’s a big responsibility,” Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk told The Globe and Mail this week, following a meeting in Ottawa with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It was imperative, he said, that the church exert its “moral authority” and foster dialogue. He met with then-president Viktor Yanukovych and with the three main opposition leaders, and then he helped get them in the same room.
Major Archbishop Shevchuk exerted his clout then, and he continues to do so now that Russia is flexing its military muscles and Ukraine is gearing up for a pivotal presidential election.
On his official visit to Canada this week, for example, he stopped in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, and encouraged congregants who carry a Ukrainian passport to cast a ballot at the Ottawa embassy or the Toronto consulate in the May 25 contest – the church’s version, effectively, of Get Out The Vote.
“We have the same heart beating,” he said, speaking of Ukrainians living in the post-Soviet state and those who call Canada home. “We have the same concerns, the same dreams. … We hope the election of the presidential figure, in itself, will have the effect of bringing some stability.”
Major Archbishop Shevchuk is a man of considerable stature: He presides over one of the largest religious organizations in Ukraine, representing about five-million faithful. He helped foster dialogue during the popular uprising when others failed, and he meets frequently with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
He met Mr. Yatsenyuk as recently as late last month, when the politician was in Rome to see Pope Francis. The Pope reportedly handed Mr. Yatsenyuk a fountain pen and said, ‘I hope that you write ‘peace’ with this pen.’” To which the Prime Minister replied, “I hope so, too.”
Russia threatens that prospect, Major Archbishop Shevchuk told The Globe at the Ukrainian Canadian Congress office in Ottawa. Not only do ethnic and religious minorities living in the Crimea region face security concerns under Moscow’s rule – synagogues, he pointed out, were attacked by pro-Russia separatists – but there are also “terrorists” at work in continental Ukraine who similarly threaten pluralism.
“Ukraine is in danger,” he said, noting recent deaths and kidnappings. “And it has to defend itself.”
He said he thanked Mr. Harper for all Canada has done to help Ukraine do just that, flagging the $220-million financial aid package, sanctions against Russian officials and the sizable election-observer mission deploying for the presidential race.
Major Archbishop Shevchuk, who also served as rotating chair of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, said he was struck by Mr. Harper’s “deep knowledge” of the dynamics in Ukraine. “[The Prime Minister] said directly that Ukrainians would never accept Russian domination,” he recounted. “Never. Ever. Even if Russia were to occupy Ukraine, Ukrainians would never accept that. … And I fully agree. History teaches us that.”
His own church has a history of being targeted: It was brutally suppressed under the Soviet Union’s communist rule. And while Major Archbishop Shevchuk said he hasn’t feared for his life during the Russia-Ukraine conflict, he qualified his answer, adding: “At least not yet.”