Settlers Pray in Chernobyl Danger Zone

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Hundreds of people who live in a prohibited radioactive zone around Chernobyl marked Orthodox Easter on Sunday by praying that the nuclear accident that devastated the area 10 years ago would never be repeated.

Two weeks before the anniversary of the world's worst nuclear power station meltdown, a congregation composed mostly of elderly women and some of the so-called "liquidators" who worked to clean up the mess spent the night at the only church left standing in the 30-kilometer danger zone.

"May a new Chernobyl never happen again. Hope in God will save you from radiation," Father Fyodor, 85, told them in Chernobyl's blue-painted 19th-century church of St. Ilya. "I wish you all the best -- peace, happiness, prosperity and, of course, health."

"Believe me," the priest told worshippers holding candles and icons, "the time will come when the whole zone will again be peopled as it once was. This land will come back to life."

The church of St. Ilya is surrounded by houses abandoned when villagers fled the radioactive cloud that billowed from the station's fourth reactor after a fire April 26, 1986. Four other churches stand neglected in the prohibited zone.

Almost 40,000 people lived in Chernobyl, 150 kilometers north of Kiev, at the time of the accident. They were forced from their homes after the catastrophe.

The 5,000 workers who operate the two nuclear reactors still functioning at the Chernobyl plant, a few kilometers from the town, live outside the zone.

But in the last few years, hundreds of people have returned to the immediate area of the plant in defiance of the Ukrainian government's ban on settlement there. St. Ilya's church was reopened three years ago.

"We're not afraid of radiation, just as it doesn't fear us either. We've become like family over the past 10 years," said Halyna Pylypenko, 55, as the priest sprinkled her with holy water. "We've survived and the radiation hasn't done for us."

One elderly parishioner donated 5,000 karbovets (less than 10 cents) to the church. Many pensioners complain they have not received any payments for months and some said they were completely forgotten by the outside world.

Zone-dwellers have to be self-sufficient with vegetables and other food because there are no shops in the area. The level of radioactivity in the soil might discourage many people from eating Chernobyl produce, however.

One uniformed liquidator, who like her colleagues was tempted to the risky work by relatively high pay and who only spends short periods in the zone, said she found the attitude of the permanent residents hard to fathom.

"This is my favorite festival of the year. But here you simply can not celebrate it in the ordinary, calm way," said Vera Kovaleva, from eastern Ukraine.

"I can't understand how people can live here not even being quite sure that it's safe for their lives."