OXFORD, England: A Ukrainian Catholic priest in Crimea said Church members were alarmed and frightened by the Russian military occupation and fear their communities might be outlawed again if Russian rule becomes permanent.
Fr Mykhailo Milchakovskyi, a pastor in Kerch, Ukraine, described the atmosphere as tense because many residents of the town located in the eastern part of Crimea were unsure of their future.
“No one knows what will happen. Many people are trying to sell their homes and move to other parts of Ukraine,” Fr Milchakovskyi said on March 12.
“Our Church has no legal status in the Russian Federation, so it’s uncertain which laws will be applied if Crimea is annexed.
“We fear our churches will be confiscated and our clergy arrested,” the priest said amid tensions over a planned March 16 referendum on whether the autonomous territory should join Russia or remain in Ukraine.
Fr Milchakovskyi said the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s leader Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych had pledged “prayers and support” if fellow Catholics “found themselves in danger”.
He said his church feared Russian rule would inflict a “new oppression” on Ukrainian Catholics, whose five communities traditionally made up about 10 per cent of Crimean peninsula’s two million inhabitants.
“Many have already stopped coming to church, after being branded nationalists and fascists by local provocateurs,” Fr Milchakovskyi said.
“The Orthodox have always insisted they’re dominant here and done everything to make life unpleasant for us.
“If they’re now given a free hand, we don’t know whether they’ll behave like Christians or follow the same unfriendly policy.”
Under Soviet rule, from 1946 to 1989, the Eastern-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed.
The strongest members lived their faith clandestinely, while others attended an Orthodox church or no church at all.
The Government confiscated all Church property, giving some buildings to the Orthodox and putting other buildings to secular uses.
In January, Archbishop Shevchuk said Ukraine’s now-ousted president Viktor Yanukovych had threatened to ban the Ukrainian Catholic Church because of its support for pro-Western opposition protests.
However, Ukraine’s former culture minister Leonid Novokhatko denied that Mr Yanukovych planned to ban the Church.
Fr Milchakovskyi said he had been allowed, as a military chaplain, to visit Catholics serving with the Ukrainian naval infantry in Kerch, after their base in the eastern port was blockaded by Russian-backed forces.
He reported that Russian troops were “controlling who and what gets through”, and said young recruits now lacked food and medicines.