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.''
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.
Hel says that through March of this year there was an active process of Orthodox churches reverting to Catholic. But it slowed down, because ``they,'' the Communists, started to brake it.
``For example,'' he says, ``a village wants to transfer its church to Greek-Catholic, but the chairman of the village council won't register it. He says, `There's no such church.'
``The Russian Orthodox Church was always an instrument of Russification of our people,'' Hel says. (As of this year, the Russian Orthodox Church in the Ukraine is called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, though it remains separate from the independent Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.)
About 1,500 churches are at stake in the Lvov region. Four hundred are now Ukrainian Catholic; the rest are Orthodox. That means the Ukrainian Catholics, who Hel says account for two-thirds of the population, control only 35 percent of the churches.
In terms of property and revenues, the Russian Orthodox Church stands to lose big if and when the Ukrainian Catholics get back everything they say belongs to them. Of the 10,000 Russian Orthodox parishes registered in the Soviet Union, some 60 percent are located in the Ukraine, according to Radio Liberty research.
In addition, a good portion of Russian Orthodox Churches that are being reopened are in the western Ukraine, raising questions about their actual origins. Further, as many as half of the Ukraine's Russian Orthodox churches are in the western Ukraine, so the Russian Orthodox Church could lose one-third of its churches in the USSR.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has tried to get around rehabilitating the church by saying that a planned law on freedom of conscience will, in effect, restore the church's status. But the Catholics say that law will not be enough - because it won't return the property.
``It will be a step forward,'' Hel says. ``But how can you call it a law on freedom of conscience when it doesn't give any church - even the Russian Orthodox - the status of a juridical entity. ... So even with this new law, they [the churches] won't be returned to the Greek-Catholics. They will be called the property of the state which a congregation can only rent.''
The dispute has caught Mr. Gorbachev in a tough spot. On the one hand, he wants full diplomatic relations with the Vatican. But he won't get this until he recognizes the Ukrainian Catholics, a point Pope John Paul II made clear in their unprecedented meeting at the Vatican last December. In the eyes of the world, the continued ban of the Catholics stands out as an exception to the Soviet leader's efforts to undo and atone for Stalin's excesses.
On the other hand, Gorbachev wants to maintain the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, which he has found useful in carrying out his policies. The full sanctioning of the western Ukraine's religious identity also raises the specter of even greater nationalist feeling in the Soviet Union's second-largest republic.
Metropolitan Sterniuk explains the continued ban this way: ``The authorities fear that free thought will destroy the Soviet system.''
Apartment command post
Inside the cramped quarters of Sterniuk's apartment, nestled on a quiet side street in Lvov, nuns and priests shuffle about in hushed tones as they carry out the business of the aging priest and their church.
The feeling is almost that of a deposed regime in exile, poised to reclaim its rightful position. In fact, with the retaking of St. George's, Sterniuk is preparing to live in the cathedral compound.
At age 83, the Metropolitan has seen his church come nearly full circle, from its death in 1946, to its decades of underground activity, to its near rebirth over the past year. In 1947, Sterniuk was sent to prison for five years.
Now, the Metropolitan is taking part in efforts to restore his church's formal status. Last March, Sterniuk signed an agreement with the Orthodox on the status of church property in five Ukrainian towns, but later annulled it. ``I did sign a document,'' he said in an interview, ``but when I saw that we were only dealing with the division of churches - and not the return of churches they took in 1946 - I broke off the discussions and destroyed what was signed. ... The Russian Orthodox bishopric didn't want to talk about legalizing our church.''
For now, prospects for a settlement of the Ukraine's conflict between Catholics and Orthodox looks dim. But in separate discussions with representatives of both confessions, one theme becomes clear: Nobody wants violence. Both sides have suffered enough in 73 years of officially atheist Soviet Communist rule.