Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church officials said this week that allegations against two arrested Redemptorist priests are false, telling The Pillar the arrests are retaliation for Ukrainian investigations into Orthodox churches aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate.
The priests, Fr. Ivan Levytsky and Fr. Bohdan Geleta, are charged with trafficking weapons to be used against Russian forces — an allegation Catholic officials have called “slander.”
The clerics went missing several weeks ago from their station in the Black Sea city of Berdiansk, and are the latest Ukrainian Catholic priests to be detained by occupying Russian authorities in Ukraine.
The Russian military-owned propaganda channel “Zvezda” announced Nov. 24 that Russian special forces had found weapons and explosives in a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Redemptorist house in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Berdiansk, which is now under occupation by the Russian army.
Russian military authorities said they had conducted a search of the rectory after Fr. Levytsky preached a sermon this month which allegedly called Catholics to sabotage Russian authorities and push back against occupying Russian troops.
Levytsky appeared briefly in the Nov. 24 Zvezda video to say that he was not present during the search and, therefore, could not comment on the accusations made by Russian intelligence agencies.
Arrested along with Levitsky was Fr. Bohdan Geleta, a priest serving at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Berdiansk.
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Friends and confreres of the arrested priests told The Pillar that they lost contact with Levitsky and Geleta in mid-November, and did not know what had happened to the men until Zvezda announced Levitsky’s arrest last Thursday.
The day after the arrests were announced, Ukrainian Greek Catholic diocesan officials in Donetsk said that charges against the arrested priests were unreasonable slander.
An official statement from the Donetsk exarchate stressed that “at the time of the search in the church and the adjacent parish house … premises of the parish, both priests were already arrested, that is, they could not in any way control these premises and the actions of the representatives of the National Guard of Russia. [The priests] cannot bear any responsibility for the alleged weapons and ammunition found in them."
The charges are “clear slander and false accusation,” the statement said.
The Donetsk press office compared the tactics of occupying Russian forces to the approach of Soviet secret intelligence services, which destroyed the presence of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in western Ukraine in the 1940s.
To date, neither the exarchate nor their Redemptorist province has had communication with the arrested priests.
But Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church officials have told The Pillar they are concerned the priests are being tortured, and will be forced to confess to possessing weapons and explosives before being sentenced to imprisonment.
Officials of the Ukrainian Catholic Church have said that pressure on the priests is most likely a kind of retaliation, because Ukrainian security officials conducted in recent weeks a series of searches in monasteries and diocesan chanceries belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate.
The Ukrainian searches reportedly aimed to identify distribution centers for Russian propaganda literature, and to identify Orthodox leaders aiding Russian invasion forces.
In the southeastern city of Melitopol this month, Russian forces detained another Ukrainian Catholic priest - Fr. Petro Krynitsky - who was not arrested but was taken out of the city with a bag over his head and dumped near Vasylivka, near the front line, according to one Ukrainian bishop.
According to Fr. Andriy Rak, provincial superior of the Redemptorist order in Ukraine, the Redemptorist community has been in ministry in Berdiansk since 2004.
The arrested priests began their ministry in Berdiansk in 2019. After the full-scale Russian invasion began this February, the priests remained in the city to continue their ministry, Rak explained.
Rak told The Pillar that at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, he considered the possibility of evacuating the priests from Berdiansk, most likely to a relatively safer region in Ukraine’s west.
But the priests were not interested in leaving, he said.
“I could not force anyone to stay there in those circumstances, but in a conversation with me, Fr. Ivan said that as long as there are those whom they can serve, they will stay. And he told me this several times. Since May, they have also served the faithful of the Latin rite, since the Roman Catholic priests left and could not return. And since the fathers had an experience of serving Roman Catholics in Western Europe, they received a decree from the local Roman Catholic bishop to serve,” Rak explained.
The superior added that until this month, Russian civil administrators in the occupied city had made no complaints about the activities of the priests.
He added that from the first days of the war, Fr. Levytsky gathered with people in the city's central square to pray for peace and end the war: “They were in full view every day; they were not hiding from anyone. Fr. Ivan said that several times he was approached by representatives of the military police to check documents, but there were no complaints.”
But Rak said that on Nov. 16, two weeks ago, he texted the priests in Berdiansk and received no response. For the next few days, he did not know what happened to them.
“I learned that they were arrested from a message in the social network of the local community. Someone wrote that a priest who prayed in the street every day was arrested. I guessed that it was about our priests. But only on Nov. 24, did stories about searches on the Redemptorist property begin to appear."
Rak emphasized that when Russian officials searched the Redemptorist rectory, the priests themselves had already been arrested.
“I was constantly in contact with them. And I know their only weapon was prayer and presence with their people.”
“But they are accused that these [weapons] shown in the video were in their possession and were to be used for extremist purposes. I am afraid that they will be tortured now, as the KGB used to do, to force them to ‘confess’ their guilt.”
“This story shows that Russians are following these methods, using the same accusations against our Church as the Soviet authorities did in the 1940s. They themselves show that modern Russia is the heir of that regime and, accordingly, the terror that that regime practiced," Rak told The Pillar.
Like Fr. Rak, Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Stepan Meniok of Donetsk, who is also a Redemptorist, believes that the priests were arrested in retaliation for Ukrainian intelligence searches of Orthodox church properties.
Those searches began in early October. A few criminal cases have already been opened against UOC-MP representatives, who are suspected of collaboration and distribution of Russian propaganda materials. On Nov. 22, just before the story was broadcast on the Zvezda TV channel, Ukrainian security forces searched the Kyiv Cave Monastery, the UOC-MP’s primary monastery.
Bishop Meniok told The Pillar that he lost contact with the priests from Berdiansk on Nov. 14, and now their situation is challenging:
“One of the priests has diabetes. We know from our sources that they are now under pressure. Russians want them to confess that it was their weapon.”
The bishop added that there is no way to provide the priests with legal counsel.
“I write them messages and letters but do not receive any response. Access to a lawyer is out of the question ... In the video distributed by the Russians, Fr. Ivan looks very exhausted. They can twist any of his words and try to manipulate the words of one to force the other to testify against him.”
The bishop explained that after the beginning of the occupation, not everyone was able to leave the region, so several priests stayed to continue their ministry there. And for a long time, they managed to do it.
But everything changed in recent weeks, he said.
“After the [Ukrainian security officials] started checking the churches of the Moscow Patriarchate, the [Russians] immediately went to all our communities. Berdiansk is not the only case.”
“A few days ago, Fr. Petro Krynitsky was extradited from Melitopol, a neighboring city of Berdiansk. They put him in a car, put a bag on his head, took him to Vasylivka, and dumped him there.”