The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has accused Russian forces of torturing two imprisoned priests.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk said that Fr Ivan Levitsky and Fr Bohdan Geleta are being “mercilessly tortured” to extract confessions.
He said they were arrested in the occupied town of Berdiansk in south-eastern Ukraine on 16 November, and charged with terrorism offences.
The Russian authorities say that their church contained arms, ammunition and terrorist documents printed in Ukrainian.
“They are being forced to confess to crimes that they did not commit,” said Major Archbishop Shevchuk on Sunday, 4 December, at a liturgy in Kyiv where he welcomed and kissed the hand of Fr Oleksandr Bogomaz, who had been detained and then released by Russian forces.
On 1 December, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church had issued a statement condemning the priests’ arrest and reports of torture. It said that “some military items were planted in the church” after their arrest.
“According to the classic repressive methods of Stalinism, they simply beat a confession out of them for a crime they did not commit,” said the archbishop in the statement.
Aid to the Church in Need reported on 2 December that it had received a statement from the Exarchate of Donetsk, to which the arrested priests belonged, warning that Fr Geleta “suffers from a chronic disease that requires taking special medication regularly” and to remain “under arrest and be subjected to torture could pose a very serious threat to his life.”
Sources told the charity that Fr Levitsky had been arrested while praying in a public square, and Fr Geleta in his presbytery.
The Russian authorities said that weapons, ammunition and terrorist materials had been found in the priests’ church, and a map displayed on Russian media was alleged to show a battle plan. ACN’s sources said it showed the route of the Stations of the Cross.
Major Archbishop Shevchuk has repeatedly called for their release.
“They are not guilty,” he said in last Friday’s statement. “They are priests of Christ: they are only guilty of loving their people – the Church, the people of God.”
The arrests are believed to be retribution for raids by Ukrainian security services on churches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which remain affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate, including Kyiv’s Pechersk Lavra (the Monastery of the Caves).
The allegations against the Berdiansk priests mirror those made by the Ukrainian authorities against Moscow-sympathising clergy. The Ukrainian government also introduced legislation last week to curtail their Church’s activities.
Major Archbishop Shevchuk was among the religious leaders who met the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, during his visit to Ukraine on 1 December.
The Anglican primate also met Metropolitan Epiphany of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (which separated from Moscow in 2018) and Metropolitan Clement of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – which renounced its loyalties to Moscow earlier this year while remaining a separate entity.
On Tuesday, Major Archbishop Shevchuk spoke on Ukrainian television about his meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican in November, saying that he had attempted to dispel the Pope’s “romantic ideas” of Russia.
He compared such attitudes towards Russia with admiration for Nazi Germany on the eve of the Second World War.
Francis, he said, “simply could not believe that such alleged models of humanism [as the Russians] could commit such a crime”.
He continued: “Today our people see like a diseased child who sees only in black and white. And [they believe] that when someone is not with us, he is against us. If somebody speaks positively about those who kill us, it starts to offend us very much.”
He said that this conversation had prompted the Pope’s letter to the Ukrainian people expressing his admiration for them and condemning the “absurd madness of war”.