Shevchuk: Free women, medics and clergy in ‘all-for-all’ prisoner exchange

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Ukrainian POWs ride atop an infantry fighting vehicle in Ukraine's Donetsk region May 25, 2023, after a prisoner swap amid Russia's attack on the East European country. Ahead of Easter on the Julian calendar, May 5, 2024, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, renewed Pope Francis' call for an "all-for-all" prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine as a way of honoring Christ's resurrection. (OSV News photo/Yevhenii Zavhorodnii, Reuters)

(OSV News) — The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has renewed Pope Francis’ recent call for an “all-for-all” prisoner exchange as a means of honoring Christ’s deliverance of humanity from sin and death.

As part of his weekly video message, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk issued an April 28 plea that, in particular women, medical workers and clergy be released, adding, “We will do everything in our power” to secure their freedom.

Pope Francis’ call for peace and exchange of all prisoners

On Easter, March 31, Pope Francis issued the traditional “urbi et orbi” (to the city and to the world) blessing, saying in his accompanying message that the “doors of life” opened by “Jesus alone” are “continually … shut with the wars spreading throughout the world.”

“In calling for respect for the principles of international law, I express my hope for a general exchange of all prisoners between Russia and Ukraine: all for the sake of all!” said Pope Francis.

Major Archbishop Shevchuk’s reiteration of the pope’s request comes on the eve of Easter according to the Julian calendar (May 5 in 2024), which remains intact for the present in Ukraine. After 2025, all Ukrainian Greek Catholic parishes will follow the Gregorian liturgical calendar.

Appeal to Christians across front lines

“We Christians of Ukraine realize that we will not be able to fully honor the passion of our Savior, his wounds, if we do not serve, help those who are suffering today … who are literally in the hell of war, in particular in the hell of imprisonment and daily tortures of (those who are) Russian prisoners,” the archbishop said.

“We know that about 8,000 Ukrainian servicemen and 1,600 civilians are currently in Russian captivity, in hellish conditions,” he said. “Let’s do everything possible so that, step by step, the exchange of ‘all for all’ will become an Easter reality.”

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the worldwide Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and fellow Ukrainian Catholic bishops listen as the Gospel is proclaimed during a Mass of thanksgiving for Aid to the Church in Need at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City March 10, 2024. (OSV News photo/Gina Christian)

He also addressed the faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church, saying, “I know that people in Russia also hear us.

“This appeal of Pope Francis found a deep response in the hearts of ordinary Russians. We know that the Russian Orthodox will honor and kiss the icon of Christ’s ‘Descent into Hell’ on Easter. We all worship the Lord, who takes humanity out of hell by the hand, takes out Adam and Eve from the graves,” he said. “Therefore, let us Christians stand on both sides of the front line with the hand of Christ, who will pull out of (the) hell (of) captivity … our brothers and sisters — women, doctors and priests.”

Addressing specific groups

The archbishop said he wanted “to be heard by all women’s organizations: religious, public, those that care about the dignity of women in the modern world, regardless of ideological direction,” with the goal of seeing every woman “freed from captivity, whether in Ukraine or in Russia, so that she can return to her family (and) home on the Easter holiday.”

Major Archbishop Shevchuk also urged “international medical organizations, in particular the Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) community, to make maximum efforts so that doctors return from prison to their families, to fulfill their professional duties.”

He said there are 10 known Ukrainian clergymen in Russian detention, and appealed to the international religious community: “Can’t the whole world get those 10 priests to sing ‘Christ is risen’ in their churches on Easter?”

Concern for detained clergy

Among the captive clerics are two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests, Redemptorist Fathers Ivan Levitsky and Bohdan Geleta. Both have been in Russian detention since November 2022 for refusing to leave their parishioners in Berdyansk, a city in the occupied Zaporizhzhia region. Major Archbishop Shevchuk said shortly after their capture that information indicated the two priests were being subjected to torture.

According to at least one human rights watch group, Father Levitsky was recently moved to a prison in Russia. Father Geleta is believed to be held in Russian-occupied Crimea.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 — determined to be a genocide in two joint reports from the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights — continues attacks initiated in 2014.

Efforts for prisoner welfare

On March 26, the United Nations’ Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine released a report detailing a sharp increase in “credible allegations of executions of captured Ukrainian POWs” in Russian custody.

Torture, beatings, electric shocks and denial of adequate food and medical attention were routinely experienced by Ukrainian POWs, over half of whom “were subjected to sexual violence,” U.N. investigators said.

A Ukrainian POW is seen in Ukraine’s Donetsk region May 25, 2023, after a prisoner swap amid Russia’s attack on the East European country. Ahead of Easter on the Julian calendar, May 5, 2024, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, renewed Pope Francis’ call for an “all-for-all” prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine as a way of honoring Christ’s resurrection. (OSV News photo/Yevhenii Zavhorodnii, Reuters)

In September 2022, Ukrainian volunteer medic Yuliia “Taira” Paievska testified before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, that during her time in Russian captivity, she witnessed “prisoners in cells screaming for weeks and dying from the torture without any medical help.” She called the experience “the torment of hell.”

Ukrainian camps for an estimated thousands of Russian POWs have been documented as adhering to international law, providing regular meals, hygienic care, free time, contact with loved ones by phone and even optional assembly-line work for small sums of pay.

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.