The demonstrations in Kyiv's Independence Square led to a fundamental change in Ukraine, say several of the country's Church leaders.

CNS PHOTO | REUTERS

The demonstrations in Kyiv's Independence Square led to a fundamental change in Ukraine, say several of the country's Church leaders.

November 3, 2014
CINDY WOODEN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Although they disagree about how unstoppable the process is and they have a varying degree of fear about what Russia might do, religious and political leaders in Ukraine say their society underwent a fundamental shift in February.

Ukrainians now realize they have both dignity and responsibilities for their country's future, the leaders said in interviews prior to the Oct. 26 parliamentary elections.

In those elections, Ukrainians gave President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk a surprisingly strong mandate to carry on with the process of reform.

"Something changed" or "everything changed" were common phrases used by leaders of the Eastern Catholic, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as by politicians, human rights activists, international observers and government officials in late October.

Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Kyivan Patriarchate – the Orthodox community not in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church – said "the Ukrainian nation received statehood as manna from heaven, without war, weapons or violence. Now we have to prove we are worthy of having an independent nation."

The 85-year-old patriarch, who had been the Russian Orthodox metropolitan of Kyiv, is convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine is just the beginning of his aspirations to rebuild the Russian Empire.

But Ukraine has an internal enemy as well: corruption.

Five days before the parliamentary elections, Patriarch Filaret and his synod passed a resolution saying, "should any of the faithful participate in corruption – either offering or accepting money – they shall be excommunicated and denied holy Communion."

"The Church is calling on society to fight corruption," he said. "Without this, no amount of reform in Ukraine will ever work. This is our second enemy."

Daniel Bilak, the Canada-born managing partner of a law firm in Kyiv and former government adviser, said corruption – the use of public office for private gain – was a habit in the Soviet Union.

However, it reached extraordinary proportions in Ukraine under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, who was forced to flee Ukraine in February, Bilak said. "We almost lost the country because of corruption."

Yanukovych and his friends "essentially stole something like US$74 billion from the state budget in four years," leaving social needs unmet, but also leaving the Ukrainian army with only 6,000 combat-ready troops, he said.

Volunteers are cooking for the volunteer fighters in Eastern Ukraine, and citizens are donating money to clothe them and buy them helmets, he said.

CHURCH STOOD WITH PEOPLE

Bilak, a member of Patriarch Filaret's Church, praised the religious leaders who ministered to protesters on Kyiv's Independence Square – the Maidan – from November 2013 to February 2014 when Yanukovych's forces fired on demonstrators, killing more than 100.

"It was very important to people that their churches stood with them, because their government did not," he said. "What happened on Maidan and what is happening in the East right now is our war of independence."

Hennadiy Druzenko is the new Ukrainian government's commissioner for ethnic policy and was one of the chief organizers of volunteer medical services during the Maidan protests.

Druzenko said the long days in the freezing cold and the brutality of the government helped Ukrainians realize how wrong they had been to assume their leaders would take care of them.

"Maidan was multilingual and multiconfessional; it was really a Maidan of values – that's what brought people together," he said. "It was our first real revolution and the destruction of paternalism. People really discovered they could take care of themselves and one another."

CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS

Druzenko and others reject a common perception that the fighting in Eastern Ukraine is pitting ethnic Ukrainians against ethnic Russians or Ukrainian speakers against Russian speakers.

"Most Ukrainian soldiers on the front are Russian speakers. This isn't like Yugoslavia – there are no ethnic or confessional frontlines. It is a clash of civilizations. On the one hand, there are those who want real democracy, on the other are those nostalgic for a paternalistic government that takes care of them."

Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, the Vatican nuncio to Ukraine, defined Maidan as "a school of faith," a place where – in an atmosphere of prayer and with the availability of ministers – people began asking profound questions.

"People started talking to one another and caring for one another."