Simferopol (AsiaNews) - Tatars and pro-Ukraine Crimeans gathered today in Simferopol at the foot of the monument dedicated to Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's national poet, to demonstrate and pray "for peace and the integrity of Crimea", following the local parliament's vote yesterday for annexation to Russia.
The issue is of particular concern to the minorities living in the historically pro-Russian peninsula, like the Muslim Tatars (12 per cent) and ethnic Ukrainians (about 26 per cent), now that a referendum is scheduled for 16 March to ratify the parliament's decision, which has already been backed by Moscow.
Away from the watchful eyes of Cossacks and pro-Russian militia patrolling most of the city centre, a few dozen demonstrators gathered in the park, summoned via Twitter by the "Euromaidan of Crimea" movement.
Holding white balloons and Ukrainian flags, they briefly prayed for peace alongside a delegation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate.
The Church delegation was led by the Metropolitan of Simferopol Kliment, who released some doves to emphasise the peaceful nature of the initiative.
"This is not a political rally," said Archimandrite Feodor. "We only want the calls for peace and Ukraine's integrity to be heard," he explained.
The religious leader had just arrived from Poltava in Eastern Ukraine where he says many people are afraid of possible annexation to Russia.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate did not back the gathering. "We did not ask them to join us because for them it is much more difficult," the archimandrite noted.
Among ordinary people in the square, fear prevails. "If you express a pro-Ukrainian position in the Crimea today, you could be literally killed or at least attacked," the Archimandrite said. "It was not like this before. This is the consequences of propaganda coming from the Russian Federation."
On one thing the priest said he was optimistic, namely the process of dialogue and reunification of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate with the Kyiv-based Church.
Both communities have been very active with respect to Maidan (Independence) Square, backing peaceful protests and acting as mediators when they turned violent.
"Talks have started again," the Archimandrite said. "A committee has been set up to speed up the process, so there will be a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church."
Meanwhile, Crimean Muslims held Friday prayers today in the region's mosques for "peace and harmony across the Crimea."
At the same time, international pressure is growing against Russia and the Crimean parliament's decision to hold referendum on annexation to Russia.
The United States and European Union have unveiled a co-ordinated set of sanctions against Russia if it does accepted a negotiated solution in the Ukraine.
The United States announced that visa bans would affect a number of Russian officials. US President Barack Obama also signed a number of financial sanctions. The EU has blocked visas and trade.
As a result of tensions in the Crimea, the rouble lost 10 per cent of its value. Russian companies also risk losing US$ 8 billion in international loans.
For its part, China continues to favour a diplomatic solution, noting, "that the legitimate rights and interests of all ethnic groups in Ukraine should be accommodated in handling the Ukraine issue".
Acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk said Kiev is also ready to talk to Moscow, ready that is, for "co-operation, but not surrender".
Moscow's intervention and tensions in Crimea have raised fears in other former Soviet republics, especially in the Baltic states.
Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite called on the European Union to counter Russia's "open and brutal aggression". In her view, "If we allow this [Crimea's annexation to Russia] to happen, next will be somebody else." (MA)