Russia’s war on Ukraine is ‘genocide,’ says Shevchuk

4 mins read
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, is pictured during a service in the Cathedral of the Mother of God in Zarvanytsia, April 25, 2022. (OSV News photo/Ukrainian Catholic Church)

(OSV News) — Russia‘s war on Ukraine, now at the 10-year mark, aims to “eliminate the existence of the whole nation,” warned the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

“We can testify that what is happening right now in Ukraine is genocide,” said Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. “A state power (Russia) has … decided to eliminate the existence of a whole nation. People are killed in Ukraine because they are Ukrainians.”

The archbishop joined Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, papal nuncio to Ukraine, for a Feb. 14 online presentation titled “2014-2024: Ten Years of War in Ukraine.”

The webinar was organized by Aid to the Church in Need, which under the guidance of the pope provides pastoral and humanitarian assistance to the persecuted church in more than 145 countries. Founded in 1947 to support post-World War II victims, ACN counts more than 5,000 projects per year.

Since Russia launched its full-scale attack on Ukraine Feb. 24, 2022, ACN has supplied $17.7 million in aid for priests and religious sisters, seminarian formation, trauma healing and vehicle purchases to provide transportation for outreach.

Joining the archbishops for the webinar were Maria Lozano, ACN’s head of press, and ACN International executive director Regina Lynch, who announced that ACN’s 2024 Lenten campaign will focus on Ukraine.

Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, papal nuncio to Ukraine, is seen June 30, 2023, at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine. (OSV News/Gina Christian)

A forgotten war

“With so much conflict and unrest around the world at present, we are … in real danger that Ukraine could be forgotten as global attention moves on from one crisis to the next,” said Lynch. “We at ACN are determined that this does not happen.”

Major Archbishop Shevchuk agreed “the war in Ukraine is becoming more and more forgotten,” adding that “we can save many lives in the future” by continuing to speak out about the long-running war.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine continues attacks begun in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea and the military backing of separatists in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Between 2014 and 2021, some 14,400 Ukrainians were killed and 39,000 injured, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Ukraine’s government states that since February 2022, Russia has killed more than 10,200 Ukrainian civilians and injured some 19,300, while committing close to 125,389 documented war crimes — including “wilful killing, torture, rape and other sexual violence,” according to a November 2023 U.N. commission of inquiry report.

An estimated 3.7 million individuals are internally displaced within Ukraine, according to the International Organization for Migration, part of the U.N. network. More than 6.3 million Ukrainians have sought safety abroad since February 2022, while Ukraine claims more than 2 million Ukrainians have been deported to the Russian Federation.

Impact on children

Two joint reports from the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights have determined Russia’s invasion constitutes genocide under the Genocide Convention. In March 2023, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, for the unlawful deportation and transfer of 19,546 children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

Major Archbishop Shevchuk said “the children in Ukraine are the most vulnerable part” of the nation’s society, which has been broadly traumatized particularly during the past two years of Russian aggression.

A church destroyed by a Russian attack on the village of Bohorodychne in Ukraine’s Donetsk region is pictured Feb. 13, 2024. (OSV News photo/Vladyslav Musiienko, Reuters)

He said more than 500 children have been officially listed as killed in the war, with over 1,200 wounded, many of them losing limbs and requiring prosthetics.

He thanked Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, president of the Italian’s Catholic bishops’ conference, for his efforts under Pope Francis to secure the release of kidnapped Ukrainian children, while admitting “we don’t know” exactly “how efficient was the mission … and how many children were liberated.”

Archbishop Kulbokas agreed, saying “up to now, the results have been very minimal.”

With just under 390 children returned so far, Major Archbishop Shevchuk said that “if we united our efforts on different levels — diplomatic, humanitarian, even with the special assistance of journalists from different countries — more and more children from Russia will be rescued and will be able to come back … to their home again.”

The trauma of war

The profound damage to Ukraine inflicted by Russia’s war, which impacts every aspect of daily life, has compelled the church to “(discover) a new way to give to our people spiritual and pastoral care,” one that in particular addresses “people in sorrow, in grief and those who have lost their dearest members of the family,” said Major Archbishop Shevchuk.

“The future of Ukraine, the future of the church, depends on how we will be able to respond to this huge need of people in Ukraine to overcome the war trauma,” he said.

For many Ukrainians, such trauma may be hidden by the very fact of survival, said Archbishop Kulbokas, noting he has met families who have lost members “five or six days” after a strike due to stress-related heart attacks. Cancer, immunological and heart disease are on the rise as well, he said.

Returning prisoners of war, many subjected to torture while in Russian detention, struggle to heal, said Archbishop Kulbokas.

Trauma has “touched the heart of Ukraine, which is the family,” said Major Archbishop Shevchuk, citing the challenges of ministering to families of those killed, injured, missing in action and captured by Russian forces.

“I am constantly giving lists of prisoners to the Vatican and to authorities,” he said, adding that “whole families” of those missing experience “constant spiritual and psychological torture.”

Redemptorist Fathers imprisoned

Among those taken prisoner by Russian occupiers are Redemptorist Fathers Ivan Levitsky and Bohdan Geleta, who were disappeared in November 2022 after refusing to leave their Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in Berdiansk. A human rights activist recently reported the transfer of Father Levitsky to Russia, but Major Archbishop Shevchuk said, “We don’t know if they are alive or already killed” since “nobody gives us any information.”

Under Russian religious persecution — which saw one Russian-installed official ban the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in occupied Zaporizhzhia — “there is no Catholic priest” anymore in the occupied territories of eastern and southern Ukraine, where churches have been confiscated, so that “people are praying in their homes,” he said.

Major Archbishop Shevchuk said that some 7 million Ukrainians are experiencing a “food emergency,” as the war continues and the “first euphoria of humanitarian assistance” from a number of global supporters has faded.

Parishes in eastern, southern and central Ukraine are key in receiving and hosting internally displaced persons who are “trying to establish themselves in the nearest peaceable city,” he said.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is working to reeducate clergy and religious to provide “psychological, physical and spiritual support” to the populace, he said, adding that teachers and other professionals have also asked to participate in the training.

Major Archbishop Shevchuk invited those who have doubts about the scale of Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine to “come and see.”

“Visit those people who are injured, or the families of those killed,” he said. “Come and see; come and touch the wounds of the people.”

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.