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The Ukrainian Catholic Church of St. Nicholas next door to a crime scene where Victoria Fire Department firefighters received a call to a house fire shortly after 1 a.m on April 20.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

The early-morning arson of a Victoria priest’s home – while he and his family slept – has upset Ukrainian Catholics living on Canada’s West Coast and raised fears that they will be targeted for their ongoing efforts in the international fight against Russia’s invasion.

Victoria police are investigating the fire, lit Wednesday morning at the rectory next to the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, as a potential hate crime. The family and other community members reported the fire around 1 a.m., shortly after someone poured gasoline through the mail slot.

The family of five were rescued, but one of three daughters was injured and her mother needed to be pulled off a second-storey window ledge by firefighters.

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress says the fire was an attack on Rev. Yuriy Vyshnevskyy and his family and called on police to thoroughly investigate the crime against innocent people.

“Given that Father Vyshnevskyy is a dedicated community leader, who through his work is strongly supporting the Ukrainian people and their defence of their homeland from Russia’s genocidal war, we call on local authorities to investigate this attack as a hate crime,” said a Thursday statement from the organization.

An online fundraising campaign has already crowdsourced $15,000 to help the family after the fire left them homeless.

Rev. Mykhailo Ozorovych, who lives beside and runs the Ukranian Catholic Church in New Westminster, said he was in Victoria on vacation with his wife and three children this week and was en route Wednesday morning to drop in on his colleague and his family for a visit. That’s when he got a call from local reporters alerting him that there had been an arson at the rectory.

“I want to think positive, but it all points to a very targeted approach,” he said, adding he is one of five other priests who live in homes right next door to Ukrainian Catholic churches across British Columbia.

At the outset of the war, Father Ozorovych said he met with a member of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in Vancouver and was warned that – as a religious leader – he could be a target and needed to stay vigilant. Until now, that had not been a major concern, he says, given very little was happening to the Ukrainian diaspora apart from some graffiti in Toronto.

Now, Father Ozorovych said, some one thousand congregants across the province’s dozen parishes are troubled by Wednesday’s incident, fearing it may be a bid to stop their continued efforts to ship medical supplies and military clothing to those fighting the Russian military in Ukraine.

Victoria police spokesperson Constable Cam MacIntyre could not immediately say Thursday whether investigators have determined that this community is at risk of other similar incidents or if his force has warned Ukrainian Canadian groups in B.C.’s capital.

“We are concerned for members of the Ukrainian community, but we don’t know if this was specifically targeting this family because of their connection to the Ukrainian Church or the Ukrainian community,” Constable MacIntyre said.

A recent Globe and Mail investigation into how Canadian police tackled hate crimes over an eight-year period found that most forces rarely charged someone in these cases. The average rates ranged from six per cent to 28 per cent among the country’s largest municipal and regional departments.

Victoria does not have a dedicated hate crimes unit, but an officer in its major-crimes section usually takes charge of these cases, though they are not leading this current investigation, Constable MacIntyre said.

Policing experts have said that front line officers often have trouble unpacking how Canada’s Criminal Code addresses hate. The vast majority of hate crimes actually involve standard offences that can result in stiffer sentences for suspects – but that only occurs if officers identify hate as a motivation and prosecutors then focus on this in court.

The incident in Victoria could fall under one of the four actual hate crimes identified in the code, Constable MacIntyre said, because it involved a church-owned property housing a priest, which potentially encompasses the offence of mischief at religious or cultural sites.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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