RUSSIA/UKRAINE: Two Ukrainian priests released by Russia after 19 months of detention

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By Anugrah Kumar

Christian Post (03.07.2024) – Two Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church priests, Redemptorist Fathers Ivan Levytsky and Bohdan Geleta, have been released from Russian captivity after more than 19 months through a prisoner exchange facilitated by diplomatic efforts involving the Vatican.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church announced that Levytsky and Geleta, hieromonks of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, were released last Friday after initially being arrested on Nov. 26, 2022, in the occupied city of Berdiansk.

In a recent interview with Ukrinform, a church leader said that the church received “alarming signals” that the priests were being “tortured regularly.”

“His Beatitude Sviatoslav expressed his deep gratitude to the Apostolic See for the rescue of the UGCC priests,” the announcement reads. “He conveyed special thanks to Pope Francis, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the entire Vatican diplomatic corps. Special gratitude for mediation was expressed to Cardinal Matteo Zuppi and Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine. Each of them contributed invaluably to making this event a reality.”

Pope Francis publicly expressed his thanksgiving after the priests’ release, according to National Catholic Reporter.

“I give thanks to God for the freeing of the two Greek Catholic priests,” the pope said after the Angelus prayer on Saturday, calling for prayers for all prisoners of war.

Supporters say the priests were arrested after military items were falsely placed in their church, leading to charges of “illegal possession of weapons.”

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in 2022, Levytsky and Geleta chose to stay in the occupied territories and served both Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic communities as a “beacon of hope for people under occupation,” the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church contends.

“They were arrested, followed by some military items being planted in the church and accused of illegal possession of weapons,” the statement continued. “There were reports that they were being tortured mercilessly to extract a confession to a crime they did not commit.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a social media post on X, announced the release of Levytsky and Geleta among 10 prisoners returned to Ukrainian authorities. President Zelenskyy acknowledged the Vatican’s pivotal role in securing their release, conveying gratitude towards the Holy See.

Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian Ombudsman, told the Interfax news agency that this is the first instance of the Vatican’s direct involvement in the repatriation of Ukrainian adults, indicating a new potential channel for further civilian returns. He claims that Russia is illegally detaining over 14,000 Ukrainian citizens.

Numerous cases of detainment and torture of Ukrainian clergy have been reported from occupied Ukrainian territories.

The Rev. Stepan Podolchak, 59, of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, disappearedon Feb. 13 in the Ukrainian village of Kalanchak after Russian occupation forces took him away for questioning in his bare feet with a bag over his head.

The priest had chosen to remain with his church after Russians invaded the village in the southern Skadovsk District of the Kherson Region in early 2022. His battered body was found on a village street by a passer-by, and taken to the morgue.

Lubinets said at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C. in February that Russian soldiers and occupation officials had committed at least 76 acts of religious persecution in Ukraine since the invasion of February 2022 as part of an attempt to destroy national identity. Additionally, he alleged that Russian forces had killed or captured at least 29 clerics or religious leaders in Ukraine since the war began.

Since the invasion, he said Evangelical Christians, including Baptists, Pentecostals and Seventh-day Adventists, had suffered greatly.

“The Russian military has repeatedly threatened the total physical elimination of all Evangelical believers, calling them American spies, sectarians and enemies of the Russian Orthodox people,” Lubinets said. “To kill a person, to demolish a church, the Russians do everything to destroy us as a nation.”

More reading

Russian forces release two Ukrainian Catholic priests captured in 2022

Pope praises release of two Ukrainian priests from Russian captivity

Ukrainian Catholic priests freed in Vatican-mediated exchange

Further reading about FORB in Russia and in Ukraine on HRWF website