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Vatican mediates release of Redemptorist priests detained by Russia

05 July 2024

Alamy

Fr Bohdan Geleta at Kyiv airport on Saturday, after being released from lengthy captivity

Fr Bohdan Geleta at Kyiv airport on Saturday, after being released from lengthy captivity

THE Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, has thanked the Pope for helping to secure the release of two Redemptorist priests who had been detained by Russia since November 2022.

The Archbishop spoke on Tuesday as Fr Ivan Levytsky and Fr Bohdan Geleta underwent medical rehabilitation after being handed over last weekend in an apparent prisoner swap, mediated by the Vatican.

In a national message, the Archbishop said that he was grateful to Pope Francis for “personally participating” in their release and ensuring “the efforts of Vatican diplomacy proved successful”. Archbishop Shevchuk’s Church combines the eastern rite with loyalty to Rome and was brutally suppressed in the 1940s.

“These released monks seem to be continuing the feat of our underground church heroes, tortured once by Communists and now by racists”, he continued. “We are overwhelmed with joy because our heroes are alive, and with sadness because of the pain we discern in their faces, when we embrace these passionate people and see what the Russian torturers did to them.”

The Archbishop said, however, that thousands of Ukrainians, including other clergy, remained in Russian hands in violation of “all international norms and rules of war”.

The website of the Greek Catholic Church said that Fr Levytsky and Fr Geleta had been framed for “illegally possessing weapons” at Berdyansk, in November 2022, after remaining in the occupied sea port of Azov to minister to Greek Catholic parishioners, and tortured in attempts to force their confession.

The release of the priests came a week after a leader of Ukraine’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Ionafan (Yeletsky), sentenced to five years in August 2023 for alleged pro-Moscow propaganda (News, 11 August 2023), was handed over to Russian officials, with two other priests, on the Belarus border.

Ukrainian officials said that the handover of the ailing 75-year-old Metropolitan had also been arranged by the Vatican, whose peace envoy, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, has visited Kyiv, Moscow, and other capitals during the past year.

After a stopover in Minsk, Metropolitan Ionafan was given an award in Moscow by Patriarch Kirill, who had appealed to the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other church leaders, on his behalf in April.

Speaking at the meeting, Kirill deplored Metropolitan Ionafan’s “spiritual and physical imprisonment”, saying that he had been persecuted for “loyalty to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and refusal to make a compromise that bordered on treason”.

In a Rome address last Saturday for the feast of St Peter and St Paul, Pope Francis thanked God “for the freeing of the two Greek Catholic priests”, and said tht he hoped “all prisoners” of the Ukraine war would soon also return home.

The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, said in a post on X that he “recognised the Holy See’s efforts” in securing the priests’ release — the first Vatican success in repatriating Ukrainian adults, rather than children.

The exchanges took place as a new leader was enthroned for Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church, to succeed the Patriarch Neophyte, who died in March.

The new Patriarch, Daniil (Nikolov), has previously taken Russia’s side in disputes with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, and the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), accusing both of stoking conflict and backing the Moscow Patriarchate, when it severed ties with five Bulgarian bishops for concelebrating a mid-May liturgy in Istanbul with OCU representatives.

In a message to the new Patriarch, however, the OCU Primate, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), said that the Bulgarian and Ukrainian Churches were both “daughters of the great Church of Christ in Constantinople”, and had “paid a high price” for seeking to belong to “a single European civilisational space”.

“We gratefully remember the late Patriarch Neophyte, who condemned the Russian aggression against Ukraine and expressed sympathy for the Ukrainian people suffering in this genocidal war,” Metropolitan Epiphany told Patriarch Daniil, who was narrowly elected on Sunday.

“We hope you will continue raising the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s voice against Russian crimes — in the name of the victory of truth and a just peace for Ukraine, Europe and the world.”

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