By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with additional reporting by Vatican Radio's Laura Ieraci
KIEV, UKRAINE (BosNewsLife)-- The leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which suffered persecution under Communism, has urged voters to act against corruption and political candidates to stay away of populism.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk made the appeal in a wide ranging interview ahead of the first parliamentary elections since the February overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Ukrainians, he said, must be united and “not think about new positions, new honours, new profit” but “how to save our country, how to preserve a free and independent Ukraine”.
He told Vatican Radio that voters should primarily “act against corruption” and “not sell their votes”, a common practice in impoverished Ukraine. Shevchuk warned a candidate who tries to buy votes is not capable of “keeping to the moral level of voters’ demands and of Ukrainian society”.
The church leader made the comments, monitored by BosNewsLife, while Ukrainians were praying in Kiev ahead of Sunday's ballot.
The poll is overshadowed by concerns over more tensions with Russia amid continuing clashes between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
That becomes clear at the spectacular Saint Andrew's Church in Kiev, the capital. Outside are photo's of hundreds of servicemen killed in battles against pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
"I come every Sunday here to pray," said a young man. "People need something to believe in. There are so many huge election posters, it really makes me cry. That money could have been spent on the army."
The West has accused Russia of arming separatists, making it difficult for outgunned Ukrainian government forces to win the war.
Critics include Garry Kasparov, the chess grand master who once ran for Russian president. He claims Russia's leader Vladimir Putin wants to redraw the map and is even more dangerous than Islamic State militants.
"It is very clear that Vladimir Putin's intention is [and[ top item on his agenda was and still is to destroy an independent Ukrainian state," he complained.
Officially the Kremlin denies active involvement in the conflict.
But even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admits Russia wants to keep influence over Ukraine.
"We cannot lose Ukraine, because Ukraine is not a group of individuals who have committed a coup and seized power" he said.
"Ukraine is not those Nazis who continue to march in Kiev and other big cities, who commit acts of vandalism, destroy [Soviet-era] monuments and praise [war time leader] Hitler’s accomplices. Ukraine is the closest of brotherly nations to us.”
Lavrov refers to far right groups such as Azov, which is participating in Sunday's ballot. Some masked members could be seen in Kiev before heading to fight in the east.
It remains unclear, however, how much influence they will have in politics following the elections. Opinion polls suggest most of the 450 seats in parliament will go to the pro-western Party for Peace block of President Petro Poroshenko.
Yet at Saint Andrew's Church worshipers realize that whoever wins the ballot faces major challenges, including solving a conflict that killed more than 3,700 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents.
Political candidates, Shevchuk said, should "avoid populism or making promises they will be unable to fulfill." His church priests have been trying to ease tensions in Ukraine. Earlier this year Shevchuk defended the open air prayer and improvised church services near often burning barricades during the pro-Western protests that eventually forced President Yanukovych to flee his nation.
He comparing government threats against believers at the time to to the Soviet era when "church buildings were ruined and priests serving their faithful were arrested or even killed." Yet despite the difficulties and the ingoing war, his denomination has been able to remember this year the 25th anniversary since it was legalized in the Soviet Union.