Over the last several weeks, Ukraine’s government has spun into ever-closer orbit to Moscow and away from the West, much to the dismay of Ukrainians. Protests have been non-stop in Kiev ever since President Viktor Yanukovych stunned his citizens by reversing course and signing a trade pact with Russia rather than the EU, sending shock waves throughout the former Soviet republics. While the protests continue, priests from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church have held “religious services,” according to AFP (presumably Mass), several times a day.
Yesterday, Yanukovich’s government threatened to shut down the church throughout Ukraine if the priests continued to offer services outside of their own facilities — sending another shock wave through Ukraine:
The Ukrainian government has threatened to outlaw the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for holding prayer services for opposition protesters occupying Kiev’s central square.
The culture ministry on Monday sent a letter to the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, accusing its priests of “breaking the law” by holding religious services outside a place of worship.
The move may well end up backfiring:
“For the first time since the independence of Ukraine, we have been put on our guard. We have de facto been warned that they could deprive our Church of its legal status,” Shevchuk told reporters on Monday.
“We thought that the prosecution of priests was a thing of the past.”
The government warning has sparked anger among believers.
“It is illegal, it is immoral. Nobody can forbid people to pray. Only Satan does not want people to pray,” said Pavlo, 52, as he came out of one of the tents on Tuesday.
In many countries that profess a freedom of religion, laws still restrict the expression of religion in public. Mexico, for instance, requires that any religious service held outside of a church be approved by the government, which goes back to the anti-clerical movement of a century ago that touched off the Cristiada in the 1920s. This is the difference between the freedom of worship rather than religious freedom, and it arises in places where the church is seen as a threat — as it apparently has become in Ukraine. (AFP notes that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the third-largest church in Ukraine, with 5.5 million members, 12% of its population.)
Usually these efforts backfire, and it’s unclear what purpose the Yanukovich government has in mind. The protests haven’t been based on religion, although that may be one of the cultural undercurrents. The tension between the Orthodox and Greek Catholics may reflect the East-West divide in Ukraine, but the crisis is based more on political history and economic independence. Vladimir Putin wants to tie the former Soviet republics back together in an economic commonwealth run out of Moscow, while the people in those nations would prefer not to fall back under the Russian thumb. Ukrainians thought they were about to escape that orbit, until Yanukovich pulled a 180 on them. If he starts shutting down churches (or even threatens to do so), it’s going to provide just a much clearer reminder of what it was like living under Russian domination, and Ukrainians will grow even more restive.
Ukraine isn’t the only place where Christian worship comes under attack, of course. Kirsten Powers reminded us yesterday at the Daily Beast that we are entering into a “new age of Christian martyrdom,” where lions have been replaced by much more efficient methods of annihilation:
The concept of Christian martyrdom may seem like something from a bygone, uncivilized era when believers were mercilessly thrown to the lions. Not so. This week, Open Doors, a non-denominational group supporting persecuted Christians worldwide, reported that Christian martyrdom has grown into a pervasive and horrifying human rights crisis.
In their annual report of the worst 50 countries for Christian persecution, Open Doors found that Christian martyr deaths around the globe doubled in 2013. Their report documented 2,123 killings, compared with 1,201 in 2012. In Syria alone, there were 1,213 such deaths last year. In addition to losing their lives, Christians around the world continue to suffer discrimination, imprisonment, harassment, sexual assaults, and expulsion from countries merely for practicing their faith.
I wrote about the same report a week ago. Not all persecution comes from death squads; most of it starts by forcing Christians to practice faith only within churches, and to be silent everywhere else. Only in silence can persecution succeed.