war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Chilling silence over Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests abducted by the Russians for grotesque 'terrorism' claims

Halya Coynash
Russia only admitted to having abducted Father Bohdan Heleta and Father Ivan Levytsky to come up with insane allegations about keeping explosives

From left Father Bohdan Heleta, Hieromonk Ivan Levytskyy Photo from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church statement

From left Father Bohdan Heleta, Hieromonk Ivan Levytskyy Photo from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church statement

Over eight months have passed since Russian soldiers seized Father Bohdan Heleta and Father Ivan Levytsky, two priest monks from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in occupied Berdiansk, with Russia providing no information even as to their whereabouts.  There were reports soon after the abduction that both men had been tortured to try to extract insane ‘confessions to terrorism’, and there is real concern for the men’s lives, especially as Father Bohdan has diabetes and needs regular medication.

Berdiansk (Zaporizhzhia oblast) was occupied within days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however Father Ivan, Head of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Father Bohdan remained in the city to serve their congregation.  Berdiansk residents had, from the outset, come out in protest at the invasion, with both of the priests taking part.  The Russians used force to crush such protests under Ukrainian flags, however people still continued to gather, albeit without Ukrainian symbolics at midday, when Father Ivan led prayers for peace in the centre of Berdiansk.

It was during these prayers on 16 November 2022 that Ivan Levytsky was seized, with the Russians coming that same evening for Bohdan Heleta and, seemingly, ‘searching’ the church the following day. 

It was only a week later, on 24 November, that the Russian occupiers admitted that they had seized the two priests.  On that day, Russian propaganda media, including TV Zvezda, a channel linked with Russia’s defence ministry, and Izvestia, claimed that “Rosgvardia had detained Ukrainian priests who were discovered to have explosives, detonators and pistols”.   

Those reports came two days after Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] carried out a search of the Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv.  The latter was then still under the control of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate and there were legitimate grounds for suspecting that the clergy at the Lavra were, like the Moscow Patriarchate, actively supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine.  There was no attempt to hide these investigative measures, nor had anybody been abducted days earlier.  Whether or not there are sufficient grounds for the current detention of Metropolitan Pavel remains to be seen, but the charges are known, and will be examined in an open court. 

While it is likely that Russia has linked the search of the Pechersk Lavra and its abduction of Father Ivan and Father Bohdan, and the search of their church, there is absolutely no equivalence.  Two priests, serving their congregation on occupied territory, were seized by the invaders and effectively disappeared.  Russia’s FSB has been seizing Ukrainians since 2014, and then circulating videoed ‘confessions’ from people held incommunicado and without access to an independent lawyer.  Any alleged ‘discoveries’ of weapons shown on such videos are equally likely to have been staged.  In this case, TV Zvezda claimed that so-called ‘security service officers had found a stash of ammunition and explosives, as well as ‘prohibited literature’. The report alleged that Father Ivan had gone from praying for peace to calling on people “to sabotage the activities of the administration and to resist the Russian military. He also held prayers in support of the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian regime.” 

Father Ivan did not, in fact, provide them with a ‘confession’, although both his voice and appearance, unfortunately, gave grounds for fearing that the usual forms of torture had been applied. As for the alleged ‘search’, Father Ivan stated clearly that he had not been present and could not comment on any supposed ‘discovery’. 

The situations are radically different for another, most ominous, reason, namely that nothing more has been heard of the men’s whereabouts, or of any actual ‘charges’.

The allegations made, and the likely methods used against the men, were immediately condemned by the Donetsk Exarchate who demanded that the men be released.   

On 1 December 2022, Patriarch Sviatoslav (Shevchuk) issued an appeal to representatives of diplomatic missions, human rights organizations and others to help to save the life of two priest monks seized while serving their congregation.  He stated: “These two priests decided to remain with their people on temporarily occupied territory.  They served both Greek Catholics and Roman Catholics, providing the light of hope to people who had ended up under occupation.”

He followed the Donetsk Exarchate in pointing to worrying reports that the men had been savagely tortured and said that this was in accordance with the classic Stalinist methods of torturing out ‘confessions’ to crimes not committed.  

There remains no reliable information about where Father Ivan and Father Bohdan are being held or even if they are still alive.  On 21 April 2023, the Berdiansk Military Administration reported that the Russian invaders had seized the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  They pointed out that the church had provided shelter and support to all those in need. and mentioned the daily prayers that Father Ivan had held near the ‘I love Berdiansk’ installation in the centre of the city. 

The Administration mentioned that Russian propaganda had not just claimed that the abducted priests had kept explosives and worked with Ukraine’s Security Service. They also treated their service as chaplains in the military zone in 2015 as something ‘incriminating’. 

The Russian propagandists were now pushing even more insane claims, that the priests had used believers’ personal data and DNA (!) and that they had purportedly ‘found’ books in the church which called for the overthrow of the regime of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.  Some of the other claims mentioned (about occultism, for example) were heard by the  Russian proxy ‘Donetsk republic’ back in 2016, with the attack on so-called ‘sects’ then accompanied by the seizure and long imprisonment of renowned religious scholar Ihor Kozlovskyy.

Russia has admitted to seizing Ivan Levytsky and Bohdan Heleta, which hopefully means that they are at least alive.  That does not make Patriarch Sviatoslav’s appeal for help for them any less relevant now, eight months after the priests were first seized and, almost certainly, tortured.

Forum 18 reports that all Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests have now left occupied parts of Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. It was informed by the Diocese that some had “left for their own safety, others were forced to leave”.  The latter include 67-year-old Father Petro Krenitsky who recounted to the Media Initiative for Human Rights how he was harassed and interrogated many times before being ‘deported’ from occupied Melitopol.

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