MOSCOW (Alexei Makarkin for RIA Novosti) - Relations between the Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches are rapidly worsening in Ukraine's Carpathian regions.
Dmitry Sidor, dean of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Cross, has accused Greek Catholics - who retain Orthodox ordinances despite being subordinated to the Vatican - of unprecedented expansion in the traditionally Orthodox town of Uzhgorod, the diocesan capital. Orthodox believers are especially outraged at the impending construction of a Roman and Greek Catholic cathedral complex in the vicinity of the Orthodox one, saying it could spark interfaith confrontation in the town.
The conflict between the Orthodox believers and Greek Catholics (also known as the Uniates) in Ukraine dates back centuries. In 1946, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church was outlawed by Stalin and went underground, to be legalized when Perestroika began. At the time, church resources in Western Ukraine were re-divided, with some switching back to Greek Catholicism voluntarily and some following grave conflicts and even violence. Only Carpathian regions remained untouched, and the Orthodox Church retained its dominance. Now this is under threat. In 2004, there were 10,310 Ukrainian Orthodox and 3,328 Greek Catholic congregations registered in Ukraine.
Normally, the Orthodox Church reacts to expansion with pickets and other acts of protest to the authorities. However, in this case, such measures would not be impressive enough for the European consciousness (Ukraine is a member of the Council of Europe) since the heart of the matter is only the construction of new churches, rather than the ejection of the congregation due to interfaith antagonism.
As far as contemporary secularist and relativist Europe is concerned, references to the historical background or the verity of faith look very archaic and out of touch with today's law and liberal principles of free competition among goods, ideologies and even faiths. Thus, Orthodox believers have opted for an unorthodox approach, by announcing they would erect a church of their own in downtown Uzhgorod, right in front of the Greek Catholic cathedral - tit-for-tat, while still observing democratic norms. Should the city authorities deny the Orthodox believers their right to build a church, they will be open to criticism for discriminating against one faith in favour of another.
The new church will be consecrated after St. Alexei Kabalyuk, a Carpathian icon. Kabalyuk was born into a Greek Catholic family but converted to Orthodoxy as a young man. He became a clergyman and played a major role in reviving orthodoxy in Transcarpathia in the early 20th century, and his missionary activities were persecuted by the Austrian-Hungarian authorities, who suspected Orthodox believers of pro-Russian sympathies. On the eve of WWI, Kabalyuk was sentenced to jail, and following his release was one of the leaders of the Carpathian Orthodox until his death in 1947. Naturally, he is an Orthodox hero, canonized in 2001, and an irreconcilable and successful - and hence dangerous - opponent for the Greek Catholics.
Naturally, interfaith confrontation is undesirable and has fatal consequences for the souls of the believers, who, instead of praying and fasting, get involved in violent conflicts often used by various political forces for their own ends. Most Ukrainian Greek Catholics voted for Viktor Yushchenko during the recent presidential election, while Orthodox believers preferred Viktor Yanukovich. However, when conflict goes too far, the forced yet peaceful response of local Orthodox believers looks quite reasonable and justified.
Andrei Makarkin is deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies.