Ukraine Catholic Bishops Call for Prayers, Fasting: A new East/West divide in Europe?

Bishops from Ukraine's minority Latin-rite Catholic Church have called for prayers and fasting in an effort to end the current social unrest in the country.

Catholic social teaching recognizes the right of citizens to courageously defend their legitimate concerns, said a statement from the bishops' conference read in parishes Dec. 15.

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And, as for the government's reaction, they said, "restricting human rights, especially the right to express views freely, is unacceptable and disgraceful."

The letter was read as supporters and opponents of President Viktor Yanukovych held rival rallies in Kiev, three weeks after his withdrawal from a landmark deal with the European Union sparked mass protests. The protests were begun by young people Nov. 21.

The bishops called on all Catholic parishes to pray for "peace, justice, truth and honesty," and to hold a day of fasting Dec. 16 as "a sign of solidarity with our brothers and sisters."

Meanwhile, the conference's vice president, Archbishop Petro Malchuk of Kiev-Zhytomyr, said it was natural for Ukrainians to "strive for better things," but added that it should also be remembered the country was "multiethnic and multiconfessional."

"No perfect state system has been invented -- but nor has anyone thought up a better system than the Western one," Archbishop Malchuk said in a Dec. 14 Catholic News Service interview.

"It's natural that many people in Ukraine should therefore want to be part of Europe and decide their own fate. But there are also people here who favor a union with Russia," he said.

Eastern- and Latin-rite Catholics make up about 10 percent of Ukraine's 46 million people, while about a third of the population traditionally professes Orthodoxy.

In Kiev's Independence Square Dec. 15, supporters of ties to the European Union staged a "Day of Dignity," which began with an ecumenical service addressed by representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Meanwhile, religious leaders attended Dec. 13 roundtable talks on national unity in the capital, attended by Yanukovych, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and other public figures.

Addressing the session, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, urged the president "to hear the Ukrainians' aspirations for European integration."

The archbishop urged the government not to address society "in the language of guns," and he said authorities must stop "persecuting students" involved in the protests, including members of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

In the interview with CNS, Archbishop Malchuk said Latin-rite Catholics had maintained a more "delicate stance" than the Eastern Catholics, whose "very sharp rhetorical words" reflected their suffering under Soviet rule. He added that both sides in the conflict feared violent "provocations by those with an interest in fuelling new tensions," and had urged followers to show restraint.

Archbishop Malchuk said the whole country hoped President Yanukovych would not "sign some new pact" during a planned Dec. 17 visit to Moscow.

Messages of solidarity with the Ukrainian protesters were sent to Archbishops Shevchuk and Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki of Lviv, president of the Latin-rite bishops, by the Catholic bishops' conference of neighboring Poland and by Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, president of the German bishops' conference. The Lithuanian bishops also issued a statement calling for prayer and support for the Ukrainians.

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