UKRAINE: Why Do Security Police Question Catholic Priests?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 17 September 2002

Catholic priests are increasingly being monitored by officers of Ukraine's security service (SBU, the former KGB), an official of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) told Keston News Service from its headquarters in the German town of Konigstein on 16 September. A Greek Catholic priest from eastern Ukraine who visited Germany recently was just the latest to mention regular visits by SBU agents to his home soliciting information, the official reported. "There certainly seems to be increased interest on the part of the SBU in what Catholic priests know and do," declared the official, who preferred not to be named. "This is not the old war against religion, but for the priests involved it is certainly discomforting." However, the chief press officer of the SBU denied absolutely that any Catholic priests were being questioned. "The SBU doesn't interfere in religious questions or the life of churches," Oleksandr Skrupnyk told Keston from Kiev on 16 September.

The ACN official - who has regular contact with a range of Catholic priests from all over Ukraine - referred to many complaints from Church workers about their phones being tapped. One new area of enquiry recently has been the financial state of individual Catholic parishes and organisations. "Such financial monitoring is being stepped up."

The official said such questioning had dropped off after the fall of communism, but appears to have revived in the past year or so. Apparently, the SBU is interested in Catholic priests as a source of information on the general political mood of the population, but also wants to know how both Greek- and Latin-rite clergy relate to their faithful and what priests have discussed among themselves. "They knock on the door, introduce themselves as being from the secret police and start asking questions," the official quoted the visiting priest as telling ACN about his experience. "I tell them: 'I refuse to tell you anything as I am not working for the government but for the Church, which cares for spiritual life.'" Some priests just laugh about such visits, the official added, but some express concern about what this might lead to given the traditional anti-Catholic sentiment in the East of the country being fanned anew by the Moscow Patriarchate in the wake of the recent erection of new Latin- and Greek- Catholic dioceses in eastern Ukraine.

The ACN official believes the SBU might be trying to use Catholic priests (almost all of whom in Ukraine are local citizens) as a source of social and political information. "The SBU are meant to know everything, so they also ask priests." The official pointed to the tense political atmosphere in Ukraine which might have provoked increased SBU interest.

The official noted that several years ago, Greek Catholic Bishop Yulian Boronovskyi of Sambir-Drohobych publicly told the SBU not to question Catholic priests and not to expect them to cooperate with such enquiries because it is forbidden them under Church law. "However, the SBU has obviously not given up trying."

The Vatican nuncio in Kiev, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, declared that he was not aware of any stepping-up of SBU questioning of Catholic priests. "I have not especially noticed that it has increased," he told Keston from the Ukrainian capital on 16 September. He seemed unworried by any surveillance. "We have no secrets. Anyone can come to our services and hear what our Church is doing." He applauded what he said was the "good" situation in Ukraine. "Religious freedom for all Churches is OK here."

While maintaining that no Catholic priests were ever approached by the SBU, Skrupnyk said that unless Catholic priests who claimed they had been approached by the SBU were prepared to come forward his department could not look into any concrete cases.

Despite its denials, the SBU also watches foreigners involved in religion in Ukraine. Foreign Protestant missionaries who have been expelled from the country in recent years have told Keston that the SBU openly read their emails, listened in to telephone calls and at times even followed them.

One foreign pastor who currently leads a Protestant church in Ukraine, who is not at present in the country, told Keston on 16 September that he has been openly followed by the SBU since the beginning of this year. "They were outside my gate always in the same vehicle and followed me when I went to the church," declared the pastor, who preferred not to be identified. He said he began to be obviously followed when issues arose over registration of the church. He recounted that in conversation with him, one SBU officer had revealed that he knew information about the pastor's background that he had mentioned to only a small number of people. "They just want to show that they know more about you than you think." He recounted the experience of another foreign Protestant working elsewhere in Ukraine. When the Protestant went to renew his residence permit at the visa and registration office (OVIR), officials brought out a large file with print-outs of all his emails and questioned him on statements he had made in them. "Where did the OVIR get these? They have no capacity or ability to monitor emails. It could only have come from the SBU," the pastor told Keston.

The pastor was not too concerned about being watched, as he said he had nothing to hide. "There is nothing covert about our work with the church." But he questioned whether the SBU was not intruding into the internal affairs of religious groups. "They're right to watch foreigners, but this was beyond the call of duty."

Orthodox sources claimed to Keston in 2000 that the SBU lobbied successfully among bishops, priests and laypeople of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church to prevent United States citizen Metropolitan Constantine Buggan, a Ukrainian bishop in North America under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, from becoming head of the Church at a Local Council held that year to elect the successor to the late Patriarch Dimitri (Yarema). The SBU reportedly came up with a plan - which the Local Council approved - to separate the roles of spiritual leader of the Church and its chairman. Elected as the Church's spiritual leader was Metropolitan Mefodi Kudryakov, whose father had reportedly been an officer of the NKVD (the Stalin-era KGB) in western Ukraine. Sources named the SBU officer who led the operation as Oleg Anatolievich Faremy, who they said was a security official working for the central SBU directorate. (END)