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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Squabbling Churches Await the Pope

URIZH, Ukraine — Maria Prokhmalskaya, a feisty 69-year-old, knew it was a sin to get into a fistfight, especially during Lent.

But she plunged into a quarrel, lost control and hit a fellow villager in Urizh named Anna Sopotnitskaya.

"I want your blood now. I want the entire world to look bleak for you," Prokhmalskaya, a Greek Catholic, shrieked at Sopotnitskaya, 45, a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox flock.

Enraged, the two women swung their fists at each other, spat and stamped their feet, each certain of her place in heaven and the other's destiny in hell. At the heart of their quarrel: the village church, a shabby wooden building claimed by both flocks.

"Greek Catholicism is the real religion. You're nobody," Prokhmalskaya screamed. "You should forget the road to that church."

In western Ukraine, where the Greek Catholic Church was suppressed by Stalin in 1946 in favor of the Russian Orthodox Church, the wounds of history still throb red and raw.

Pope John Paul II plans to visit the region in late June, despite bitter opposition from the Moscow-aligned branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — the largest church in the country — which has warned that his visit would spark street protests and has vainly asked him to postpone it indefinitely.

[The head of the Russian Orthodox Church repeated Sunday that the pope is not welcome in Russia either until the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches resolve festering disputes.

Problems include "the completely unequal position of Orthodox and Roman Catholics in western Ukraine … and the proselytizing that is being conducted in Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan," Patriarch Alexy II said at the opening of a conference of Orthodox youth in Moscow, The Associated Press reported.

The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, who was in Moscow, said he also opposes the pope's plan to visit Ukraine. "If the pope is visiting Ukraine on an invitation from the local government, he should ask for the opinion of the Ukrainian Church," Christodoulos said Friday, Interfax reported. The pope asked for such an opinion before his recent visit to Greece, he said.]

But for Catholics in western Ukraine, John Paul's visit will be a celebration honoring those martyred during Stalin's time.

After the quarrel at the church, Prokhmalskaya made an almost miraculous transformation.

"I'll have to ask forgiveness for it," she said, almost contritely. "But sometimes I just can't contain my emotions and I lose control and I can't bear an unrighteous thing happening before my eyes."

The unrighteous thing, apparently, was Sopotnitskaya hovering too close to the church.

Early that sun-drenched day at the end of February, the deputy chief of the local administration, Orest Lutsin, came to Urizh with several police officers to enforce a court order that the Greek Catholic community give up the church to the village's Ukrainian Orthodox minority, affiliated with the Orthodox Church in Moscow.

The Greek Catholic community has two other churches in the area, but the Orthodox faithful have only a vacant cottage at the top of a long steep track, impossible for elderly people to reach.

Besieged by several hundred furious Greek Catholic villagers, Lutsin gave up and left, his second failed attempt to transfer the church.

"We could use force to enforce the decision, but it's impossible to keep force here 24 hours a day. The only way to solve the problem is for the religious communities to reach peace and sign a truce," he said with a shrug.

Western Ukraine was part of Poland until September 1939, when the Nazis invaded and handed eastern Poland to the Soviets.

Now five churches are struggling over property and believers in western Ukraine: Greek Catholic, which follows the Greek rite liturgy; Roman Catholic; Ukrainian Orthodox under Moscow's patriarch; Ukrainian Orthodox under Kiev Patriarch Filaret; and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox.

In Urizh, Catholics see the Orthodox flock from the Moscow-affiliated church as communist puppets.

"It's unacceptable for us to have a Moscow priest in our village," said the fist-fighting Prokhmalskaya.

Yaroslav Voloshchuk, 52, chimed in, insisting that believers of what he called the Russian Orthodox Church should convert to an opposing Orthodox church or leave town.

"If they're not happy with our priests, they can go to the train station and go to Moscow," he said.

Since freedom of religion was reinstated in the early 1990s, the big loser in western Ukraine was the Moscow-affiliated church. Without the monopoly it had had since Stalin's day, it has shrunk from more than 1,000 parishes to just 62.

Most parishes returned to their earlier faith; as part of Poland, nearly all the believers had been Catholics. According to state statistics, 1,533 Greek Catholic parishes have been restored in western Ukraine.

In parishes such as Urizh, the conversions of priests and most of the flock back to Catholicism left the Orthodox minority churchless. Elsewhere, minority Catholic flocks had no church.

In a January letter to the pope protesting his planned visit, Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev, from the Orthodox Church under Moscow, described the conversions in violent terms. The Greek Catholics had "seized" more than 1,000 churches and "smashed" three Ukrainian Orthodox dioceses.

The Moscow-based church also lost a lot of ground to the other two Orthodox churches, which now have 744 parishes between them.

The Urizh fight is tame compared with the conflicts of the early 1990s, as communities fought for control of the churches. Priests were beaten and hounded from churches. Villagers poured petrol into wells of the opposing flock, burned haystacks, broke windows, chased their enemies with scythes.

"Both sides were guilty of betraying Christian principles," recalled Myroslav Marynovych, vice rector at the Lviv Theological Academy, a Greek Catholic institute.

Catholic leaders in Lviv, a city of 800,000, believe the pope's visit will help to heal a society where corruption and crime is rife, problems they see as a result of the spiritual damage inflicted in the Soviet years.

"In a society where people were systematically murdered, the government sponsored artificial famines, millions died and no one was able to talk about it or grieve about it, there is profound spiritual and psychological trauma and demoralization," said Boris Gudziak, an American priest who is rector at the academy.

But the visit seems destined to be divisive.

Archbishop Avgustin, the prelate of Lviv, who is linked to the Moscow church, said he believes it "inexpedient" for Orthodox believers to rally against the pope in western Ukraine, where Greek Catholics dominate. But he said he would be supportive of rallies in the capital, Kiev, and other parts of the country.

"As archbishop, I can't entice people to rally against the pope's visit," he said. "But if people are interested in my personal opinion, I'd say that after all the things that have been done to the Russian Orthodox believers in Ukraine, the visit is impossible."

John Paul's decision to visit despite the opposition seems tacit acknowledgment that efforts to heal the rift

between the Catholic and Russian

Orthodox churches, which have been divided since the Great Schism of 1054, will not succeed in his lifetime.

While he has worked to mend ruptures between Christian churches, he has also rigidly upheld the Catholic dogma that humanity's only path to salvation is Catholicism. The Vatican contends that the Catholic Church is not the sister church of other Christian faiths, but the mother church — the kind of argument that deeply antagonizes Orthodox leaders.