Many Catholics living in the disputed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea are worried about their future after the region declared independence Monday following an overwhelming vote to secede.
Father Mykhailo Milchakovskyi, a pastor in the town of Kerch, Ukraine, in eastern Crimea, told the Catholic News Service that members of his church are frightened by the recent Russian military occupation and fear their communities may be forced out under possible Russian rule.
"No one knows what will happen. Many people are trying to sell their homes and move to other parts of Ukraine," Milchakovskyi said. "Our church has no legal status in the Russian Federation, so it's uncertain which laws will be applied if Crimea is annexed. We fear our churches will be confiscated and our clergy arrested," the priest added.
Milchakovskyi said the Ukrainian Catholic Church's leader, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, had pledged "prayers and support" to any Catholics who felt threatened.
"Many have already stopped coming to church, after being branded nationalists and fascists by local provocateurs," Milchakovskyi said.
Church leaders are concerned that Russians would inflict a new oppression on Ukrainian Catholics, who make up about 10 percent of Crimea's 2 million people.
Under Soviet rule, from 1946 to 1989, the Eastern-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed. While some continued to practice their faith in secret, others attended an Orthodox church or gave up going to religious services. The government confiscated all church property, handing over some buildings to the Orthodox Church and putting other buildings to secular use.
Two days before the referendum, Milchakovskyi said many Catholics would likely not vote. "They say that it's not legal. They will not take part in it and that it is just illegal," he said.
Milchakovskyi said he had been allowed, as a military chaplain, to visit Catholics serving with the Ukrainian naval infantry in Kerch, after their base in the eastern port was blockaded by Russian-backed forces.
He reported that Russian troops were "controlling who and what gets through," and said young recruits now lacked food and medicine.
"The Orthodox have always insisted they're dominant here and done everything to make life unpleasant for us. If they're now given a free hand, we don't know whether they'll behave like Christians or follow the same unfriendly policy," Milchakovskyi said.