Ukraine: Catholics’ clandestine Christmas in the occupied territories

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In the Zaporizhzhia area, in the hands of Moscow, there is a fear of going to church and from expulsion of priests. So says the story of Father Bogomaz, arrested and expelled from Melitopol. Two Redemptorist priests are still detained.

His will be a Christmas ‘in exile’, as he calls it. Far from the land of Melitopol that he never wanted to leave. “It is terrible not to be able to be with my community to celebrate the birth of the Saviour today,” sighs Father Oleksandr Bogomaz. Arrested and then driven out by Russian occupation troops after a ridiculous sentence. His faults? Being a young Greek Catholic priest and not wanting to become a Russian citizen in the eastern Ukrainian city from which the Kremlin army controls two-thirds of the Zaporizhzhia region. Father Bogomaz was one of the last three Catholic priests remaining in the Russian-held part of the oblast and together committed to community service. All were expelled just weeks before 7 January, the day the major Christian denominations celebrate the Nativity according to the Julian calendar.

A Christmas without their people for the three pastors of souls filed as “fomenters of interreligious enmity” by Moscow’s secret services, who deported them to the last checkpoint. Political the trial; political the sentence: confinement. And a clandestine Christmas for the parishes of an area equivalent to Slovenia, which, without priests, seem to have gone back at least half a century, to the days of the Soviet Union and the ‘underground’ Church that was the only possible way in the pincer of terror. No celebrations. Perhaps not even a church gathering because of the risk of raids or tipping off. Possibly only Mass to be followed via the Internet, indoors and away from prying eyes.

“After the pseudo-referendum at the end of September for the annexation of the region, the climate became increasingly heavy,” Father Bogomaz recounts. “For seven times, masked men with assault rifles broke into the sanctuary. The last raid was on 1 December, when they again forced me to take my Russian passport. But they also informed me that the local authorities had banned the Catholic Church and that I would be ousted’. Some claim it was retaliation after Ukrainian 007 raids on the monasteries and eparchies of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church linked to the Moscow Patriarchate and suspected of collaborationism. The fact is that the priest refused to leave. “They invaded the building, stole the parish van and everything they wanted”. And he found himself locked in a room. “The interrogation was very heavy. I also suffered death threats. Several times, I lay on the floor and cried. I asked God to give me the strength to resist. And from heaven help came. “I don’t know why the Lord saved me,” he whispers. Released, yes, but immediately removed from the city that for the two warring countries is the ‘gateway to Crimea’.

A corner where Oleksandr’s roots lie. Thirty-three years old, a priest for six, he is originally from the village of Nizhny Sirogozy, halfway between Melitopol and Kherson. Lands over which Putin has rushed to control at all costs. As in the port city of Berdyansk, mentioned by the head of the Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, when in the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Kyiv, he wanted the newly freed Father Bogomaz at his side. He kissed his hands and returned to denounce the illegal arrest of two Redemptorist priests from Berdyansk, Father Ivan Levytskyi and Father Bohdana Geleta, detained for almost two months and “tortured mercilessly to extract confessions of crimes they did not commit”, Shevchuk noted. They face terrorism charges because the occupation authorities claim to have found ‘explosives and extremist literature’ in the church.

(Giacomo Gambassi, avvenire.it – 7 January 2023)

You can also read: Statement by Redemptorists in Ukraine.

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