Orthodoxy and Catholicism Collide in a Ukrainian Town

UKHOVOLYA, Ukraine, June 26 — On a windswept hill a dozen miles from where Pope John Paul II was saying Mass this morning, a determined group of Orthodox believers — men and women working with hammers and trowels — were building a new sanctuary against what they see as the Catholic assault on their faith.

The men wore work clothes and the women wore scarves and aprons as they chattered in Ukrainian mixed with Polish. They now worship in an old bus without wheels that teeters near the construction site. They painted it blue, added some benches and the icons of their faith, and on top of the bus-church they erected a cross welded together from water pipes.

They are building a new church illegally on land they seized within sight of their old one, with its silver dome visible above the treeline in the distance. The old church was turned over to Greek Catholics in 1989 when the strictures of Soviet repression slackened enough to lift the ban on their faith and gave rise to a broad Catholic reawakening that swept western Ukraine.

For most of the 1990's, the Orthodox and Greek Catholics of this village worshiped under the same roof. But the Orthodox struck out on their own two years ago when their shared church was formally recognized as Greek Catholic. Now, the authorities are threatening to tear down the half-completed Orthodox structure because the congregation refused to place it on a garbage dump, the only land the village chiefs offered.

"Here in western Ukraine, if you are Orthodox, you are the enemy," said the Rev. Igor P. Kurpita, an Orthodox priest from a neighboring parish who is supporting this tiny congregation. Mikhail L. Tuzyak, 62, a carpenter who has donated his time and skills to the new church, added, "They told us that the best place for an Orthodox church is among the garbage."

This is the battleground of ethnic and religious conflict — wrought by centuries of competition and suspicion between Orthodoxy and Catholicism — on which Pope John Paul II came to say Mass today. As many as 600,000 people came to hear him, pilgrims from nearby Poland together with Ukrainians strewn across the muddy Hippodrome racetrack in Lviv.

The pontiff, speaking in his native Polish, told them, "Let us feel ourselves gently nudged to recognize the infidelities to the gospel of not a few Christians of Polish and Ukrainian origin living in these parts."

"It is time to leave behind the sorrowful past," he said. "The Christians of the two nations must walk together in the name of the one Christ."

During the last decade, thousands of Orthodox churches were seized by Greek Catholic congregations — reclaiming what they had lost in Soviet times, when their churches were confiscated and turned over to the tamer Orthodox church. During the 1990's, some priests followed their congregations and left the Orthodox faith for Greek Catholicism, which was both widespread here and ruthlessly suppressed.

But many, like Father Kurpita, have clung to Orthodoxy, while dropping their allegiance to Moscow, whose patriarch, Aleksy II, rules the largest Orthodox Church and opposes breakaway efforts in Ukraine. The Rev. Miykhajlo Fedoriw, the Greek Catholic priest of SS. Olga and Elizabeth Church in Lviv, explained today that for years he pretended to be Russian Orthodox during the Soviet repression.

"If I had not pretended, I would have been sent to Siberia," he said. "Patriarch Aleksy says that the Greek Catholics have destroyed their parishes, but in 1946 my church was destroyed by the Russian Orthodox Church, which continued to exist thanks to the patronage of the K.G.B."

When he finally got his church back in 1989, "it was in ruins," he said. "It had been used as a warehouse."

Many church conflicts here have been settled by a wave of church building and sharing, but as the struggle in Sukhovolya proves, the conflict is far from over.

Moreover, Father Kurpita's Orthodox congregation of 450 families on the outskirts of Lviv once occupied a 19th-century church surrounded by a picket fence, on the main rail line to Poland. But in December 1989, the Greek Catholic members of the parish council recruited the Rev. Vasily Kovpak, then 22 years old and fresh out of the underground Greek Catholic seminary, to lead an insurgency from the pulpit. He did so, and the congregation that day physically ejected the Rev. Volodymir Babich, who had served as the Orthodox rector for 18 years.

Ever since, the Orthodox parishioners have been trying to recover. Five factories in the area gave them land and financing to start a new church that now stands half-finished, like a cathedral of disappointment.

For now, they pray under the asbestos roof of a temporary hall.

"When this religious war began in western Ukraine, it caused great moral damage," said Father Kurpita. "Many people's faith was not that strong and, psychologically, they could not stand the pressure and so they left the church," although, he asserts, some are now returning.

Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, who heads the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, said today that the lingering property conflicts in western Ukraine are "not real religious conflicts."

"The church is just the battleground," he said. "They reflect the personal ambitions of a person or a family in a village, perhaps someone who aspires to be more important. They are human cases in the worst sense of the word."

But to spend part of a day in this village, or among the Orthodox whom Father Kurpita serves, is to witness a festering conflict that still blends religion, culture and nationality.

The Greek Catholic Father Vasily, who sees himself as a missionary for his faith in western Ukraine, and the Orthodox Father Kurpita never speak, for instance.

"Very often I just walk past the church" — where the Orthodox were ejected — "on the way to the cemetery where we bury the dead," Father Kurpita said, "but this priest, he avoids meeting me."