Ukraine facing religious war as Moscow Patriarchate attacks Greek Catholics
by Nina Achmatova
Ukrainian Catholics and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church loyal to Russia trade accusations as attacks and violence against priests on both sides mount. For Mgr Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk, Catholic bishop of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia, "there is a hunt for Catholic priests" in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - The Moscow Patriarchate in a press communiqué has again sounded the alarm bell of a possible inter-religious conflict in Ukraine, renewing its attacks against Greek Catholic Ukrainians, whom it blames for intimidation and aggression against Orthodox priests.

The statement comes against the backdrop of an escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine, where the army is fighting pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, as well as a spate of kidnappings, attacks and threats against the Catholic clergy.

"We are calling on the Ukrainian state authorities to put a barrier in the way of those who would want the civil conflict to escalate into an inter-faith standoff as such a scenario would largely postpone the long-awaited peace on Ukrainian land," the Synodal Information Department said in a statement carried by the Interfax-Religion on Tuesday.

The statement said that a cleric from the St George's Church in the Lugansk Diocese, Archpriest Vladimir Kreslyanskiy, died from injuries sustained in a shelling of residential areas of Lugansk. His five children are now orphans.

"Ever more reports are being received about acts of violence against churches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its priests who found themselves in the hostilities zone," the statement said.

Among Ukrainians, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate is often associated with Russia and its policies.

Canonically the Moscow Patriarchate recognises only the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, considering schismatic both the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox.

In the statement, the Synodal Information Department also stressed that Orthodox priests not only suffer from growing hostility, but have also "become targets of deliberate attacks by Greek Catholics and schismatics who are using civilian sentiments to attain their malicious goals".

The Moscow Patriarchate has always maintained that Greek Catholics (who are loyal to Pope) have a plan to steal members of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

After the Maidan Square uprising, Greek Catholics have been often attacked for their alleged "political" action because they supported the protests against then-President Viktor Yanukovich.

According to the Russian Patriarchate, members of the Greek Catholic Church and armed "non-canonical groups" are making "absurd accusations and ultimatums" against the Orthodox clergy, whilst claiming that they are acting with the authority of the government.

Recently, the regent in Kyiv wrote an appeal to President Petro Poroshenko, asking him to guarantee the rights and freedoms of Orthodox in the diocese of Donetsk and protect them from Ukrainian soldiers in the area, who in his view are interfering in the lives of the parishes.

In the letter, he reports several cases of aggression like the one that occurred on July 30 in the town of Krasnoarmiisk, where armed men in a car, from the Dnepr Battalion, went to the house of Rev. Igor Sergienko, pastor of the Aleksandr Nevsky Church. After insulting and accusing him of hiding separatists, he was told to leave Ukraine within two days and sign over Church property.

Russia's Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) has reported almost 60 attacks across the country against religious buildings and priests belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate since the beginning of 2014.

Reports continue of violent incidents against the clergy, including Christian communities that are not linked to the Moscow Patriarchate.

On 15 July, armed militants abducted Fr Viktor Vonsovich, parish priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Gorlovka, Donetsk. He was released after ten days and told not to return home if he wanted to live.

According to Mgr Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk, Catholic bishop of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia, in the East "there is a hunt for Catholic priests," who are subject to continuous provocations.