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Ukraine's priests provide protest inspiration, key link to pre-Soviet era

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    December 9, 2013: A cleric stands near Interior Ministry personnel who block a street during a gathering of supporters of EU integration in Kiev. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

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    Friday, Feb. 21, 2014: A priest stands on the barricades at Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine. The presidency said Friday that it has negotiated a deal intended to end battles between police and protesters that have killed scores and injured hundreds, but European mediators involved in the talks wouldn't confirm a breakthrough. (AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic)

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    Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014: A priest and protesters talk to police officers near the Cabinet of Ministers in the center of Kiev, Ukraine. Fierce clashes between police and protesters, some including gunfire, shattered a brief truce in Ukraine's besieged capital Thursday, killing numerous people. The deaths came in a new eruption of violence just hours after the country's embattled president and the opposition leaders demanding his resignation called for a truce and negotiations to try to resolve Ukraine's political crisis. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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    December 9, 2013 : People walk into a makeshift chapel at Independence Square in Kiev. (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

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    Friday, Feb. 21, 2014: An anti-government protester gets a blessing from a priest at Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine. (AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic)

They stand defiant before shield-wielding riot police, clutching gilded crosses and inspiring the freedom-seeking masses in Kiev’s Independence Square.

But the clergy of Ukraine are more than leaders of the protest that threatens to split the nation's troubled alliance with Russia. They are a link to Ukraine's historical independence, before the Russian Revolution led to the Soviet occupation that lasted until 1991 but still hovers above like a dark cloud. Amid the escalating violence, priests have been seen defying police, leading civilians safely past them and performing last rites on those killed in the clashes.

“They are there as pastors looking over their flocks.”

- Roksolana Stojko-Lozynskyj, of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America

“They are there as pastors looking over their flocks,” Roksolana Stojko-Lozynskyj, of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, told “Although they are not in [an official] leadership [role], they are well-respected in the community."

Priests have even put up makeshift chapels in tents in the square, where crowds have been estimated in the tens of thousands.

Prior to nearly a century of Soviet domination, Ukraine was a deeply religious nation with historic ties to western Europe.

The strife has brought together Ukraine's major denominations, including the rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarchate and Ukrainian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, as well as the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox and the Vatican-aligned Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches. The churches released a joint statement last month as unrest percolated in the square.

"There is still a need for political agreement to begin to live heeding the law of God and of man, while respecting the rights and dignity of citizens, and maintaining social cohesion," the statement read in part.

Last week, the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk stated that it is the role of the clergy to be at the forefront of the demonstrations in order to serve people who have historically faced religious persecution.

The protests in the capital city of Kiev began in November after the cash-strapped government backed out of signing a free trade agreement with Europe in favor of funding from Russia. The protests have escalated sharply this week with as many as 77 killed and hundreds injured in clashes with the police.

The so-called EuroMaidan revolution was born out of the Ukrainian people’s desire to be a part of the EU, said Stojko-Lozynskyj. But it has its roots in the nation's history, and the ever-present tension between Kiev and Moscow. While about 78 percent of the population is Ukrainian and 18 percent Russian, its financial dependence on Russia has given Moscow greater clout than those numbers might suggest.

Despite an uneasy truce and an agreement by increasingly unpopular President Viktor Yanukovych, an ethnic Russian, to hold new elections, experts say the tinderbox lit in Kiev could continue to burn.

“I think the wheels are coming off the Ukranian government,” Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations told “Yanukovych is clinging to power and he seems to be oscillating between attempts to hold on to that power and realizing that it’s too late and he needs to compromise. It is a no man’s land at this point." 

As the economic situation worsens and the violence spirals, the people of Ukraine are once again looking to their religious leaders and grappling with the age-old dilemma posed by Russia.

“The situation in Ukraine with Russia has always been difficult one since the days of the Empire,” Stojko-Lozynskyj said. “The abuses were horrific. The people did not want to be in a system of ethnic apartheid.”

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @perrych