On Forgiveness Sunday among Ukrainian Catholics, Mohammad Khaled “Kyle” Afridi prayed for peace and tried to forgive Russia.
Forgiveness seemed almost unthinkable for him and dozens of fellow parishioners who attended the 9 a.m. Divine Liturgy on March 2 at Denver’s Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church. Forgiveness Sunday is an annual ritual in the Ukrainian Catholic Church, a Byzantine-rite segment of Catholicism in full communion with Rome.
Russia and Ukraine
As Denver Ukrainian Catholics prayed, violence escalated in their home country as hundreds of thousands of protesters faced off with riot police in the capital of Kiev, and Russian troops set foot in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
The conflict began last November when then President Viktor Yanukovych gave into pressure from Russia and refused to sign a political and economic association pact with the European Union that would have strengthened ties between Ukraine and western Europe. The country is divided between Pro-EU and pro-Russia proponents, with Crimea being mostly pro-Russia.
A statement Sunday from the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church downplayed the hostility between Russia and Ukraine. “The Ukrainian people have only friendly, fraternal feelings toward the Russian people, it said. “Do not believe the propaganda that enflames hostility between us. We want and we will continue to build friendly and fraternal relations with Russia but only as a sovereign and independent state.”
Nonetheless, the Church appealed to the international community to “stop foreign invasion into Ukraine and brutal interference into our internal affairs.”
“Undermining of peace and stability in Ukraine threatens to destroy all the modern system of the world security,” the statement said. “Therefore all the measures should be used to stop breaking up of the war in Ukraine.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned Sunday that blood could spill if Ukrainian resistance continues.
“Such a state of order will be extremely unstable,” Medvedev wrote on his official Facebook page. “It will end with the new revolution. With new blood.”
Interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of declaring war and said his country is “on the brink of disaster.”
Hell on earth
In a short ceremony following Forgiveness Sunday Divine Liturgy, Byzantine-rite priests and deacons humble themselves before laity and beg forgiveness for any sins they may have committed during the year.
“If I’ve offended you in anyway, please forgive me,” the clergy ask.
Worshippers are encouraged to also forgive others who may have caused them harm.
“I do and I don’t forgive Russia,” said Afridi, a former Muslim who migrated to the United States in 1984 and converted to Catholicism in 2007. “It is a struggle to forgive a country that continues as such a menace to freedom and peace in this world.”
The upheaval reminds Afridi how Russia helped conquer his native land of East Pakistan, known today as Bangladesh, in the 1970s.
Afridi was rounded up with his parents and five siblings and held as a prisoner of war. At age 11, Afridi found himself surrounded by barbed wire and abusive guards. Meals often consisted of a single slice of bread. He describes living “hell-on-earth,” made possible by Russian intervention in his native country’s affairs.
Afridi fears the unrest in Ukraine may quickly escalate into full-fledged war.
The challenge to forgive
Father Vasyl Hnatkivsky, pastor of Transfiguration, said Russia’s aggression in his home country made Forgiveness Sunday more difficult than usual.
“It is very difficult to find forgiveness of an evil empire that is only doing bad things in Ukraine,” said Father Hnatkivsky, who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine 10 years ago.
Father Hnatkivsky has felt threatened by Russia and the former Soviet Union most of his life. The priest’s grandfather was captured by Russian troops and held in a Siberian prison camp for six years during World War II because he resisted Soviet occupation.
“Today, the people of Ukraine just want to be part of the civilized world and the Russian dictatorship wants to stop that from happening,” Father Hnatkivsky said. “But there is nothing good in Russia and Ukrainians do not want to be a part of it. The country is not much different today than under the Soviet Union.”
Deacon Joseph Kasuboski concurred with Father Hnatkivsky’s opinion that Russia’s governmental philosophy of domination hasn’t changed much, even 23 years after the Soviet Union’s demise.
“It’s all PR,” Deacon Kasuboski said, asserting that good public relations have led Americans to view Russia as a peaceful, post-Cold War country not so different from the United States.
“It is very difficult to forgive Russia for what it is doing to Ukraine,” the deacon said. “We need to ask God for help with this one.”
Deacon Kasuboski explained that all humans must forgive those who have done or continue doing something evil.
“If we do not forgive, it is like holding acid in our hands,” he said. “If you hold it, the acid burns you. If you let it go you are free to cleanse your hands and begin a healing process. The acid is no less corrosive because you let go, but it’s not burning your hands.”
The grace of forgiveness
Deacon Kasuboski used his homily to help worshippers forgive threats to the safety and lifestyles of families and friends back home. He recited a payer found in the clothing of a dead child at the World War II Ravensbrück concentration camp, where Nazis murdered more than 90,000 women and children.
“O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will,” says the prayer. “But do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us. Instead, remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering, our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble.
“When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let all of these fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.”
In his Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis made “a heartfelt appeal to the international community: support every initiative for dialogue and harmony.”