Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash, presented his credentials to Pope Francis on 7 April, marking the official start of his appointment.
Already functioning as ambassador since early March, however, Yurash was one of several invited guests, including Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, at an awareness-raising event, organized by the Pontifical Oriental Institute, about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Yurash spoke in Rome on 29 March about how the Greek Catholic churches in Ukraine, including parishes, are providing much-needed humanitarian aid, both in the war zones and to displaced persons in the western parts of the country. Many priests also have chosen to serve the spiritual needs of those on the frontlines as chaplains to the Ukrainian army, he said.
The ambassador underlined “the personal, very important role” of Archbishop Shevchuk in issuing video messages and statements almost daily, providing people with information and with Christian hope and perspective on the war.
The churches have not been untouched by the war, said Yurash, stating that at least 60 churches in eastern and southern Ukraine, mostly Orthodox, have been partially or completely destroyed. At least three priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and two priests of the Moscow Patriarchate were also killed.
Yurash, 53, said Ukraine’s religious identity is distinct “from the side who initiated this war” in “its spirit of unity and spirit of recognition of the plurality” of religions within Ukrainian society.
Ukrainians in different parts of the country for nearly five centuries have been “accustomed to different religious groups, with different people, who confess, absolutely different views,” said Yurash.
This is “absolutely opposite to the situation in Russia, which for many, many centuries” enforced a “monopoly in the religious area,” he continued.
He said the various religious groups and churches in Ukraine, including religious minorities, are united in their stand against the Russian invasion because they understand that their religious freedom — their very existence — could only be assured within in an independent Ukrainian state.
The Russian-occupied areas of Crimea and Donbas have already experienced religious intolerance, he said, and “huge, terrible prohibition and persecution of any religious opponents” have been documented.
“The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is one of the most vulnerable groups in the context of the situation,” he continued, making reference to the repeated persecution it suffered at different times in history and most recently under the Soviet regime. “This church knows perfectly how it was impossible for the church to continue [its] existence.”
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church also experienced similar periods of oppressions and prohibition under Russian regimes, he said.
The experiences of these two churches demonstrate that the current war concerns not only Ukraine’s political boundaries and freedoms, but the freedom of religion and conscience as well, he said.
What is at stake, he added, is the survival of a Ukrainian society that respects religious pluralism and freedom of confession, conscience and choice. These values are enshrined government policy, which also does not require a religious group to register with the state, he said.
In the midst of the war, Ukrainians “feel a huge level of international support we have never experienced before” he said. “And this support inspires all of us, inspires all religious organizations in our country, to be united and to defend the values that I very briefly explained before.”
“These values unite us with Europe because we feel — and we feel this for 500 years — we are part of Europe, with the same values and with the same wish to be independent and to be real [masters] in our own home.”
Yurash, who holds a doctorate in political science, served as director of the department of religious and ethnic affairs of Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture for six years. He then led the department of religious affairs concerning the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, at the secretariat of the cabinet of ministers.
He is a member of the All-Ukrainian Association of Religious Scholars and is co-founder of the International Association for the Study of Religion in Central and Eastern Europe.
Laura Ieraci is the assistant editor of ONE.