Ukrainian Catholic priests have been freed from Russian captivity

(OSV News)– Two disappeared Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests seized by Russian forces from their church in Berdyansk in November 2022 have been released after months of captivity, according to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Redemptorist Fathers Ivan Levitsky and Bohdan Geleta, who served at the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in Berdyansk, were among 10 prisoners who have been returned to Ukrainian authorities.

Zelenskyy announced the news in Ukrainian June 28 on his Facebook page.

“We have managed to free 10 more of our people from Russian captivity, despite all the difficulties,” wrote Zelenskyy, who recognized “the Holy See’s efforts to bring these people home.”

Priests freed from captivity

Moments after Zelenskyy’s announcement, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church posted the news on its website, along with images of the two priests taken during their imprisonment by Russia. Both appeared to have lost significant amounts of weight, particularly Father Geleta, and their heads were shaved. The priests gazed directly at the camera, holding up religious medals in their right hands and raising their left thumbs. Father Geleta smiled.

Metropolitan Archbishop Borys A. Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, speaking from Ukraine, told OSV News, “We still don’t know what kind of condition (they are in) and what kind of trauma they endured.

“We are glad that they’re safe and we hope they can recover from this ordeal,” he said, describing the priests as “confessors of the faith,” an honorific title historically used to describe Christians who have publicly professed Christ amid persecution.

Other released prisoners

Also freed along with the two priests were Nariman Dzhelyal, deputy head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, who was captured in Crimea in 2021; civilians Olena Piekh and Valeriy Matiushenko, held captive since 2017-2018; and five civilians captured in Belarus: Mykola Shvets, Natalia Zakharenko, Pavlo Kupriienko, Liudmyla Honcharenko and Kateryna Briukhanova.

“All of them are now free and home in Ukraine,” announced Zelenskyy. “We will definitely free all our people.”

Information regarding the whereabouts of Father Levitsky and Father Geleta has been uncertain since their capture. Most recently, the two were thought to be in detention at Russia’s Kalinin Labor Camp in Horlivka, located in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, which is currently under Russian occupation.

Earlier in June, Felix Corley of Forum 18 — a news service that partners with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in defending freedom of religion, thought and conscience — told OSV News that information was “the closest I think we’ve come to actually confirming at least where they are.”

The Donetsk Exarchate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, to which the priests belong, told Forum 18 June 3 that it had received no news of the two priests. Previously, Father Levitsky was thought by Yevhen Zakharov of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group to be held in an investigation prison in Russia’s Rostov region, while Father Geleta was believed to be in custody at a separate investigation prison in Russian-occupied Crimea. Father Geleta is known to suffer from an acute form of diabetes.

Both priests had refused to leave their parishioners following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, which continued attacks launched in 2014 against Ukraine. Shortly after Father Levitsky and Father Geleta were captured, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said he had received “the sad news that our priests are being tortured without mercy.

Exchange proposal and responses

Corley had reported earlier in June that Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s human rights commissioner, claimed on Telegram May 23 that Russia had proposed exchanging two unnamed Catholic priests for two Orthodox priests.

The 47-year-old Father Levitsky and 59-year-old Father Geleta are the only two Catholic priests known to be in Russian detention, said Corley.

Moskalkova — who has been sanctioned by several nations, including the U.S. — said in her Telegram post that “Ukraine, for absolutely unknown reasons, did not agree to such an exchange.”

Major Archbishop Shevchuk had repeatedly called for the release of the two priests, and has echoed Pope Francis’ pleas for an “all-for-all” prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine.

Alleged visit

“I recently visited the Catholic priests in their place of detention and made sure that the conditions corresponded to international standards,” Moskalkova claimed, without indicating the date and location of the alleged meeting. “On their part, only one request was made, to see their family and friends as quickly as possible.”

“We had heard rumors before that at least one of them was there in that camp,” Corley told OSV News. “So it does seem to me that that’s the most likely place where they were, at least at the beginning of May, when (Moskalkova) was there.”

He noted that Moskalkova was in occupied Donetsk May 3 and visited Horlivka with the Russian-appointed human rights official for the region, Darya Morozova. Corley’s May 30 written inquiries to the offices of both Moskalkova and Morozova, asking to confirm the location and condition of the two priests, have yet to receive a response.

Father Andriy Buchvak, chancellor of the Donetsk Exarchate, had told Forum 18 his office had no confirmation that Moskalkova had in fact visited the priests, but said that her reference to them was a “good sign” they had remained alive after 18 months in captivity.

Corley also noted on the Forum 18 website that Father Levitsky and Father Geleta had “appear(ed) to be facing criminal trial, under false charges related to weapons, explosives, and allegedly ‘extremist’ texts the Russian occupation forces claim to have found” in their Berdyansk church.

Breach of international law

Even the attempt to charge the priests under Russia’s criminal code is a breach of international law, Corley told OSV News.

“The international community recognizes these territories as occupied and you can’t impose new laws on occupied territory. You’re supposed to leave the laws that pre-existed in force,” said Corley, pointing to the Geneva Conventions. “It seems that in the case of two Greek Catholic priests, they’re going to bring them to trial under the Russian criminal code. … (but) if they are to bring them to trial, it should be under the Ukrainian criminal code (for) anything that they’ve done which was against Ukrainian law.”

In addition, said Corley, those who have been “jailed by the Russians in (occupied) Crimea and other places … (are) normally transferred to prisons in Russia to serve their sentences, and again, that would be against the Geneva Conventions.”

Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically bans deportations, transfers and evacuations from occupied territory, while Article 76 states that “protected persons accused of offenses shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve their sentences therein.”

Numerous substantiated accounts of torture during Russian detention also violate the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Russia ratified in 1987, and which requires those who engage in torture to be punished, said Corley.

Crackdown on religious communities in Ukraine

As part of a broader crackdown on a number of religious communities in Ukraine, Russian occupation authorities are also planning to try Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) priest Fr Kostiantyn Maksimov on charges of “espionage,” Corley noted. The 41-year-old priest, who was seized by Russian occupation forces in May 2023, faces a prison term of 10 to 12 years if convicted.

Father Stepan Podolchak, a priest of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, was captured Feb. 13 in Russian-occupied Kherson, taken from his home for while barefoot, with a bag over his head, according to Corley. The priest’s body, bearing bruises and a possible bullet wound to the head, was found on the street of his village, Kalanchak, two days later.

A Protestant woman in her early 50s has been under arrest by Russian forces since early 2024 for remarks “apparently related to Ukraine” during “a meeting at a private house,” said Corley, who noted that the woman — who remains unnamed since “publicity could … make her situation worse” may be facing criminal trial under Russian occupation officials.

Muslim clergy have also been subjected to duress and torture, Corley reported.

In December, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, or UGCC, announced it had obtained a copy of an order signed a year earlier by Yevgeny Balitsky, the Kremlin-installed head of the occupied Zaporizhzhia’s military-civil administration, declaring that the church had been banned and its property was to be transferred to his administration. Also banned by the order were the Knights of Columbus and Caritas, the official humanitarian arm of the worldwide Catholic Church.

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