“Accusing priests of sabotage and espionage brings back memories of the worst and darkest times of totalitarian systems,” says ACN Executive President Thomas Heine-Geldern.
The Greek Catholic Exarchate of Donetsk, in Ukraine, has issued a new statement, dated November 30, on the situation of two Redemptorist priests who were illegally taken into custody by Russian militia in the city of Berdyans’k, in the region of Zaporizhzhia Oblast, South-eastern Ukraine.
The statement, which was sent to international charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), warns of the dangers faced by fathers Ivan Levitskyi and Bohdan Heleta, respectively parish priest and chaplain of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “They may be tortured, in order to obtain a confession regarding possession of weapons,” a charge that has been made by representatives of the Russian-imposed administration in the occupied territory.
According to the statement, this “confession” would then lend “greater legitimacy to an eventual court verdict and illegal punishment” for the two religious.
The exarchate further warns that Father Bohdan Heleta “suffers from a chronic disease that requires taking special medications, regularly,” and that to remain “under arrest and be subjected to torture could pose a very serious threat to his life.”
The Church authorities claim that they have not been able to contact the priests and explain that the two Redemptorists did nothing more than to remain “in the place where they were exercising their priesthood” and fulfilling “their pastoral duties.”
Arrested during prayer for peace
Aid to the Church in Need has learned from sources close to the exarchate that Father Ivan Levitskyi used to gather with the local residents for a prayer for peace every day at noon, in the main square of Berdyans’k.
“On November 16, he and two women were arrested while reciting the prayer. The women were released the same day,” the source told ACN.
Pro-Russian forces later arrived at the monastery and arrested the second priest, Bohdan Heleta. The whereabouts and reason for the arrest of the two religious were unknown until Russian television published a report on the priests on November 24.
Russian media reports state the discovery of weapons and ammunition, as well as material printed in Ukrainian, as the reason for the arrests. Among others, the reports showed a map which was presented as a battle plan when, in fact, it shows the 14 stations of the cross for a 2015 Via Crucis, placed along the frontline, as prayer stations against Russian military vehicles.
Revenge for the Pechersk Lavra raids in Kyiv?
Sources contacted by ACN believe that the investigation into the Church of the Nativity, in Berdyans’k, and the false reports regarding weapons, could be an act of revenge for the raids conducted by the Ukrainian security services against the famous Pechersk Lavra Monastery in Kyiv, which was under the authority of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which answers to the Moscow Patriarchate.
In its statement, the Donetsk exarchate “condemns all methods of action against the Church, which are a blatant violation of international law, and of the laws of war in particular, and demands the immediate release of the Redemptorist priests Ivan Levitskyi and Bohdan Heleta.”
In the name of religious freedom, ACN joins the Exarchate of Donetsk in asking for the immediate release of the detained priests, “whose only guilt is not having abandoned their faithful despite the inherent dangers, and of consoling the people and praying for peace,” says Executive President Thomas Heine-Geldern. “Accusing priests of sabotage and espionage brings back memories of the worst and darkest times of totalitarian systems. We ask the authorities involved to reconsider and to take all necessary measures to secure the release of these religious. We also ask all our benefactors and friends to pray for Ivan and Bohdan.”