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Ukraine’s crackdown singling out Catholics, Canada’s religious-freedom envoy says

Vera and Tania Hill from Burlington, Ont., join other members of the Canadian Ulkranian community as they gather in Toronto on Jan. 26, 2014, to support of the EuroMaidan protesters.

CHRIS YOUNG/The Globe and Mail

Canada's ambassador for religious freedom is warning that the Ukrainian government is persecuting a particular group of Catholics as the political crises grows in the European country.

Ambassador Andrew Bennett, who visited Kiev Saturday and Sunday, said he's also upset that new laws placing limits on civil rights will disallow churches from joining protests against the government in Ukraine's capital city.

Mr. Bennett said President Viktor Yanukovych's attempted intimidation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church could be the start of a wider crackdown on churches in Ukraine as the civil uprising continues.

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"That's certainly the concern," he said, speaking to reporters via conference call Sunday. He said the analogy of this church as the "canary in a coal mine" is very apt.

The mass protests and clashes with police in downtown Kiev, Ukraine's capital, were sparked last fall by Mr. Yanukovych's decision to balk at closer ties with the European Union and instead align himself more closely with Vladimir Putin's Russia. Matters worsened when the government passed draconian laws limiting civil rights.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is one of the largest religious organizations in Ukraine.

Canada takes a major interest in Ukraine events because more than one million Canadians are of Ukrainian descent and the Harper government has been loud in its condemnation of the crackdown on civil rights, the deaths of protesters at the hands of government authorities.

Conservative MPs have asked for an emergency debate Monday in the House of Commons as Canada, the United States and other countries consider diplomatic responses including imposing sanctions that hurt the elite in the Yanukovych government.

Mr. Yanukovych has offered opposition leaders a power-sharing deal in an attempt to appease the outrage but violent protests continue.

Mr. Bennett said in early January the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church received a letter from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture warning that unless its bishops and clergy stop joining protestors in the street – where they are praying – that the religious organization would be delisted as a legitimate religious entity in Ukraine.

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"It should be noted the last time the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was declared an illegal entity in the country was in 1946 I believe under [former Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin," the Canadian ambassador said.

He said the church's leader, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, told him that he was not aware of the Ministry of Culture sending such a letter to any other church in Ukraine.

"He indicated to his knowledge no other church received such a letter from the Ministry of Culture," the ambassador said.

Ukraine's elite riot police, the Berkut, have been threatening Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests and clergy whom they find in the streets, Mr. Bennett said.

"It seems they were particularly targeted by the Berkut."

Mr. Bennett recounted other stories he'd been told of persecution. A bus full of students from Ukrainian Catholic University, affiliated with the Greek Catholic Church, was stopped by police as they attempted to reach the mass protests, he said. Police removed the vehicle's license plate so it could not continue on its way.

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The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has a history of being targeted by the Ukraine state. It was brutally supressed while Ukraine was under communist rule and control by the Soviet Union.

Mr. Bennett said Ukrainian churches are playing an important role in the Eastern European country during the conflict by encouraging dialogue between opposition leaders and the government and protesters.

"The churches in Ukraine have tremendous respect among the people and their legitimacy has been enhanced through all of this … so to have a law that restricts the role of the churches and actually violates their religious freedoms and their ability to pursue legitimate pastoral outreach to the people is completely unacceptable."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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