(JTA) — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko praised the actions of a priest who saved Jews during the Holocaust, but who has not been recognized in Israel because of his apparent sympathy for Nazi Germany.
Poroshenko spoke in favor of Andrey Sheptytsky at the unveiling on Wednesday of a monument in the priest’s honor in Lviv, the news website ipress.ua reported.
Poroshenko said that even though Ukraine was not an independent nation during World War II, Sheptytsky’s deeds showed that “de facto, Ukraine had a government” in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Some 10,000 people attended the event, held on what would have been the priest’s 150th birthday.
Sheptytsky, a former leader of that church, was vilified in his country during the former Soviet Union’s sovereignty of it for his initial support of Nazi soldiers, whom he greeted during their invasion into present-day Ukraine, and backing of Ukrainian sovereignty in the decade preceding the war. He was also an advocate of the UPA militia, whose troops carried out widespread massacres of Jews.
UPA and its leaders saw Germany’s occupation of Ukraine as instrumental for breaking free of Russian occupation, though many of them later turned against Germany, too.
Sheptytsky and his brother, Clement, harbored Jews in monasteries and organized groups that would aid them in escaping to Hungary. Clement was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vahsem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem in 1995. But requests to give his brother the same distinction, which is reserved for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the genocide, have been denied.
Several Jewish groups have condemned the growing veneration of Ukrainian nationalists with Jewish blood on their hands or who collaborated with the Nazis.
The phenomenon has grown more prevalent after the 2013 revolution that ousted Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, amid allegations that he was a corrupt Kremlin stooge. Far-right nationalists and Nazi sympathizers, including from the extremist Right Sector movement, played a central role in that revolution.
Under Poroshenko, legislation to ban both Nazi and communist symbols was promoted, in what critics said created a false equivalence.
On Tuesday, Poroshenko told Yonatan Markowitz, a Kiev-based rabbi, that “in Ukraine, we won’t tolerate any kind of racism, whether it is targets Jews or any other minority.” Still, the rabbi’s office wrote in a statement that Ukraine was seeing “rising anti-Semitism.”