Ukrainian Catholic bishops, ambassador say Ukraine has 'no choice but to defend' itself

NEW YORK (OSV News) -- Ukraine's Greek Catholic bishops, led by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, have said their nation will continue to fight Russian aggression, "notwithstanding the suggestions for need for negotiations coming from representatives of different countries, including the Holy Father himself.

"Ukrainians will continue to defend freedom and dignity to achieve a peace that is just," said the permanent synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in a March 10 statement, issued hours after the synod had concluded a weeklong series of meetings in the U.S. with clergy, faithful and U.S government officials.

Signing the statement were the permanent synod's members: Major Archbishop Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the worldwide Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church; Metropolitan Archbishop Borys A. Gudziak of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia, head of Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S.; Bishop Wlodzimierz Juszczak of the Eparchy of Wroclaw-Koszalin in Poland; Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh, apostolic exarch in Germany and Scandinavia; and Bishop Josaphat Moshchych of Chernivtsi.The permanent synod's visit, which included stops in Washington, Philadelphia, northern New Jersey and New York, marked the first official travel by a Ukrainian Catholic delegation to the U.S. since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, continuing attacks begun in 2014.

The synod's statement followed a recent interview Pope Francis gave to Lorenzo Buccella of Radio Télévision Suisse, in which he urged parties to the war in Ukraine "not be ashamed to negotiate before things get worse."

In the interview, a portion of which was released March 9 ahead of the full March 20 airing, the pope, who discussed both Russia's war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war, told Buccella that "the word 'negotiate' is a courageous word."

"When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going well, it is necessary to have the courage to negotiate," he said. "You may feel ashamed, but with how many deaths will it end? Negotiate in time; look for some country that can mediate. Today, for example in the war in Ukraine, there are many who want to mediate. Turkey has offered itself for this. And others."

The pope's comments quickly sparked international backlash, prompting Holy See Press Office director Matteo Bruni to issue a March 9 clarification of the remarks.

Bruni said that "the Pope picked up the image of the white flag, proposed by the interviewer, to indicate a cessation of hostilities, a truce reached with the courage of negotiation. His hope is for a diplomatic solution for a just and lasting peace."

The Ukrainian Catholic bishops prefaced their statement by clarifying that they "do not yet have a full version of the interview" given by the pope, while noting that "as he has done repeatedly, Pope Francis calls for negotiated settlements of armed conflicts."

The bishops said they wished "to reflect not upon the Pope's statement but upon the point of view of the victims of Russia's invasion of Ukraine," since "it is important to understand the position of most Ukrainians.

"Ukrainians cannot surrender because surrender means death," said the bishops. "The intentions of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and Russia are clear and explicit."

Ukraine's ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash, echoed that sentiment.

"For us, it's not a matter of a victory -- it's just a matter of the survival of our existence as a nation, as a country," he told OSV News.

Russia's war on Ukraine, now entering its 11th year, is "an example of … contemporary genocide" realized against a "concrete territory, concrete country … concrete nation," Yurash said.

He said that he has not yet spoken directly and officially with anyone at the Vatican regarding Pope Francis' interview comments, but added he "(hopes) we'll have in the near future, very shortly, some communications."

Yurash, like the synod bishops, said it is "important to wait for the official contacts and the official explanations … on the highest level."

The bishops stressed that along with Putin, "70% of the Russian population support the genocidal war against Ukraine, as does Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church."

As of November 2023, "the level of support for the actions of the Russian armed forces" in Ukraine "remains high," with 74% of the populace declaring approval, according to the Levada Center, an independent sociological research firm based in Moscow.

Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill has moved to absolve Russian troops of crimes preaching in a September 2022 sermon that any Russian soldier who dies in Ukraine offers a sacrifice that "washes away all the sins that a person has committed."

"The expressed objectives (of Russia) are articulated in concrete actions," said the bishops.

Two joint reports from the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights have determined Russia's invasion constitutes genocide, with Ukraine reporting more than 127,060 war crimes committed by Russia to date in Ukraine since February 2022.

In March 2023, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Putin and his commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the unlawful deportation and transfer of at least 19,546 children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation. On March 5, the ICC issued additional warrants for two Russian military officials accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Well over 500 children have died in Russian attacks on Ukraine, including five ranging in age from 4 months to 9 years, who were killed along with seven adults in a March 2 Russian drone strike on an Odesa residential building.

"In Putin's mind, there is no such thing as Ukraine, Ukrainian history, language, and independent Ukrainian church life," said the Ukrainian Catholic bishops. "All matters Ukrainian are ideological constructs, fit to be eradicated. Ukraine (for Putin and Russia) is not a reality but a mere 'ideology.'

"The ideology of Ukrainian identity, according to Putin, is 'Nazi,'" said the bishops. "By calling all Ukrainians (who refuse to be Russians and accept Russian rule) 'Nazis,' Putin dehumanizes them … (as having) no right to exist. They need to be annihilated, killed."

The bishops pointed to sites of mass atrocities by Russian forces in Ukraine, such as "Bucha, Irpin, Borodianka, Izium, and … other places occupied by Russian forces," as evidence of "the clear purpose of this war: to eliminate Ukraine and Ukrainians."

Religious persecution has accompanied Russian brutality in Ukraine, the bishops stressed.

"Every Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory leads to the eradication of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, any independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and to the suppression of other religions and all institutions and cultural expressions that do not support Russian hegemony," they said.

In December 2023, Yevgeny Balitsky, the Kremlin-installed head of the occupied Zaporizhzhia's military-civil administration, issued an order banning the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Knights of Columbus and Caritas, the official humanitarian arm of the worldwide Catholic Church. Balitsky accused all three entities of working on behalf of Western nations against Russia. Reports indicate priests are being kidnapped and held by Russian forces in undisclosed locations.

The permanent synod statement asserted that "recent history has demonstrated that with Putin there will be no true negotiations."

As an example, they pointed to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which Ukraine unilaterally surrendered its nuclear arsenal, the third largest in the world at the time, for security pledges from Russia, the U.S. and the U.K.

The memorandum "is not worth the paper on which it is written," said the bishops. "So it will be with any agreement 'negotiated' with Putin's Russia."

Yurash told OSV News that "we can see absolutely perfectly that Russia in reality doesn't want to initiate real negotiation," but instead seeks an "ultimatum" that is a "strict demand to legitimize a war that we have now" -- one that would swallow "the occupied territories and even much more" while changing Ukraine in ways that are "absolutely unacceptable."

"To accept Russian pre-conditions of this negotiation means to eliminate and to agree that Ukraine will disappear from the real political map of the world," making it like "Belarus, which is not really an independent country," said Yurash.

As Russia continues to intensify its attacks, "Ukrainians will continue to defend themselves," since "they feel they have no choice," said the bishops. "They believe in freedom and God-given human dignity. They believe in truth, God's truth. They are convinced that God's truth will prevail."

- - - Gina Christian is a multimedia reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseReina. Junno Arrocho Esteves contributed to this report from Rome.