The Ukraine's Clash of Faiths
Given the freer Soviet religious atmosphere, suppressed Catholics are asserting themselves, reclaiming churches from Russian Orthodox parishes
THE scene in front of St. George's Cathedral in Lvov couldn't have been more poignant: two clutches of elderly women, screaming at each other in full voice, arguing over whether the cathedral belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church or the Ukrainian Catholics. ``I don't know why they're even bothering,'' said a young Catholic woman, herself entering the fray with an occasional comment. ``No one's going to convince anybody their side is right.''Skip to next paragraph
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The high-pitched debate, it turns out, was only a taste of things to come.
Within a matter of days, the cathedral grounds became the setting for the latest episode of Ukrainian religious conflict. On Aug. 12, 30,000 Ukrainian Catholics converged to reclaim the church and the neighboring chancery from the Orthodox, who were using the compound as their church's seat in the Lvov region. St. George's had served as the Ukrainian Catholics' headquarters until 1946, when Joseph Stalin orchestrated the liquidation of their church (accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis) and gave its assets to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Armed with decrees issued April 6 by the Lvov city and regional governments granting them this historic hillside compound, the Catholics succeeded in forcing out the resident Orthodox clergy and are celebrating masses there for the first time in 44 years.
This is a ``religious war'' against the Orthodox, cried Lvov's Orthodox Bishop Andrei Horak at a recent Moscow press conference. He charged that the Catholics smashed windows at the cathedral and took the bishop hostage for four days. The Catholics firmly reject the accusations.
In an interview at St. George's before its takeover, another Orthodox bishop, Andrei Drogobichsky, rejected the ``meddling'' of Lvov's new non-Communist government. ``The church leadership - Orthodox and Uniate - must handle this question,'' he said, using a term for the Ukrainian Catholics that they find derogatory.
Now, following the takeover, future dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican has been thrown into doubt, says Metropolitan Juvenaly of Moscow.
For the Ukrainian Catholics, who combine allegiance to Rome with the Eastern Byzantine rite, reestablishing church headquarters at St. George's has been a symbolically important element in their struggle to reclaim confiscated property, including hundreds of churches all over the western Ukraine, and regain full state recognition. (Many Ukrainian Catholics believe that Metropolitan Andrei Shetytsky, considered the father of the contemporary Ukrainian Catholic Church, is buried in the crypt at St. George's.)
The retaking of the cathedral complex culminates a year of rising public activism by the Catholics - emboldened by the Gorbachev-inspired mood of openness, but also fueled by the growing frustration over the government's persistence in withholding formal legalization. Riding anticommunist wave
In effect, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics, as they are fully called, have ``unbanned'' themselves. Riding a wave of growing anticommunist feeling, particularly strong in those western parts of the Ukraine that were seized by Stalin at the start of World War II, the Catholics have regained control of some 400 churches and are now practicing openly without fear of legal persecution. The Ukrainian Catholics say they have 5 million believers, making them the dominant religious group of the western Ukraine.
``To this day,'' says Metropolitan Volodymyr Sterniuk, the top Ukrainian Catholic hierarch inside the Soviet Union, ``our church is not legalized and not rehabilitated. So in fact, we don't have the right to what belongs to us. In reality we do, but from the legal standpoint, we don't. We don't exist at the height that we should.''
Ivan Hel, a longtime Ukrainian Catholic lay activist and a top government official in the Lvov region, recalls how last year he was serving a 15-day prison term for organizing ``unsanctioned rallies'' - that is, mass Ukrainian Catholic Church services.
``Then, last September, there were manifestations in which more than 250,000 people took part,'' Mr. Hel says. ``The authorities understood that the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church and the social movement were so strong that they needed to come to grips with it.''
The Catholics' struggle took a fateful turn last October, when a priest at another Lvov parish - the Transfiguration Church - unexpectedly invoked the name of the Pope during a Russian Orthodox service, restoring the church's status as Ukrainian Catholic. Scores of other Ukrainian churches followed suit.
On Dec. 1, the state dropped the ban on the church by allowing Ukrainian Catholics to register their communities. But the announcement did not restore control of church property and did not acknowledge the facts of history: that the 1946 gathering in Lvov of Ukrainian Catholic elders in which the church ``dissolved itself'' was organized by Stalin, as shown in documents revealed last September by the magazine Ogonyok.