Reports: Russian forces in Ukraine have seized a Roman Catholic church

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Berdyansk, Ukraine, is seen in this undated photo. Ukrainian officials reported April 22, 2023, that Russian forces seized the church in occupied Berdyansk, part of what the Institute for the Study of War calls an ongoing persecution of Catholics. (OSV News Photo courtesy of Primorka City)

By Gina Christian

Russian forces have reportedly seized a Roman Catholic church in Ukraine, according to published accounts.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization based in Washington, released an April 22 assessment stating that Viktoria Halitsina, head of the Ukrainian military administration of the port city of Berdyansk, wrote on her agency’s Telegram channel April 22 that Russian troops had seized the city’s Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In her post, Halitsina said that the church “was not only a religious community,” but a place where “the needy could receive support, and residents and guests of the city had the opportunity to hear organ music.”

Since “the very beginning of the (Russian) occupation, the church provided shelter and help to all who needed it,” she said.

OSV News reached out for comment from administrators at the parish, located within the Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia, and is awaiting a response.

Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18 News Service — which monitors violations of religious and other freedoms in several former Soviet nations — said the seizure of the church has not been confirmed, but such a move “wouldn’t be out of line with what the Russians are doing” in Ukraine.

The church itself “seems to have been empty for a while,” Corley said, with the pastor, Father Mateusz Godek, apparently now based at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Pavlohrad, some 180 miles north in Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region.

In November 2022, two Redemptorist priests who had been based at the parish, Father Bohdan Galeta and Father Ivan Levitskyi, were kidnapped by Russian militia. The priests served both the Latin-rite and Ukrainian Catholic communities.

While their status and whereabouts remain unknown, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the global Ukrainian Catholic Church, said in a December 2022 plea for their release that he had learned the priests were being “tortured without mercy.”

ISW, which has closely monitored Russian aggression against Ukraine for several years, said “Russian occupation authorities are continuing to oppress Roman Catholics in occupied Ukraine, likely in an effort to suppress Ukrainian religious institutions beyond Moscow’s control.”

In an April 9 report, ISW assessed that Russia is “committing gross violations of religious freedom” in Ukraine as part of its full-scale invasion, which was launched in February 2022 and continued attacks begun in 2014. With some 66,000 war crimes reported since February 2022, Ukraine has filed charges of genocide by Russia with the International Court of Justice. More than 19,300 Ukrainian children have been abducted by Russia over the past year, according to Ukraine’s government.

ISW found that Russia is persecuting believers from a number of denominations in Ukraine, including the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Catholic and Roman Catholic Churches, as well as Baptist, Lutheran, evangelical Protestant, Mennonite, Pentecostal and other Christian communities. Muslim and Jehovah’s Witness congregations also have been targeted.

Among the violations are the capture and killing of clergy; looting, vandalism and destruction of houses of worship; and raids, searches and detention of congregants.

Several places of worship have been closed or nationalized, particularly those of the OCU, created in 2018 after breaking with the Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC) Moscow Patriarchate, which is closely aligned with the Kremlin. ROC Patriarch Kirill, a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has blessed his country’s invasion of Ukraine, assuring his followers that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.”

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