PTYCHA, Ukraine (Reuters) - One recent Sunday morning in the western Ukrainian village of Ptycha, a battle for control of the church between rival Orthodox factions forced parishioners to worship in unusual places.
To the left of the building, dozens squeezed into the caretaker’s lodge, above which a small Ukrainian flag fluttered.
To the right, and a short walk down the road, a second service took place in the priest’s packed garage. People spilled out into the garden where they shared the space with the occasional stray chicken.
The 106-year-old Holy Assumption church itself was padlocked and three police officers were nearby to guard it.
The standoff is the upshot of a tussle that pits a church aligned with Russian Orthodoxy — widely referred to in Ukraine as the Moscow Patriarchate — against a breakaway rival called the Kiev Patriarchate.
Religious divisions deepened in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea by Russia and subsequent conflict between Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatist forces over the Donbass region in the east.
Those tensions are back in focus after Petro Poroshenko, the pro-Western president who faces a tight election race next March, stepped up efforts to create an independent, or “autocephalous”, national church.
He says the move is designed to bring religious and social unity as well as to blunt Russia’s influence in Ukraine.
“This question goes far beyond the ecclesiastical. It is about our finally acquiring independence from Moscow,” Poroshenko told parliament in April.
The Moscow Patriarchate considers its Ukrainian rival illegitimate, and fiercely opposes Poroshenko’s proposal.
The Kiev branch, which broke away in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union, supports it.
Critics of the Moscow Patriarchate call it a fifth column for the Kremlin, used to harbor pro-Russian separatist fighters, store weapons, justify Russian expansionism and spread anti-Ukrainian propaganda.
Mykhailo Voytyuk, a leader of the Kiev Patriarchate community in Ptycha, says Moscow Patriarchate priests treat them as second-class citizens and broke an agreement to let both sides take turns to hold services in the church.
“We are nobodies and they are everything. We are the unblessed. We are the dissidents,” he said.
“The Moscow Patriarchate is the fifth column, with which the FSB brainwashes and influences the state of affairs in every village, including ours,” he added, referring to Russia’s state security service.
The Moscow Patriarchate rejects such accusations. It says it is autonomous from the Russian Orthodox Church, and many of its followers feel they are unfairly cast as “stooges” of Moscow.
Archbishop Kliment, spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the official name for the Moscow Patriarchate, denied his church was a security threat and said it had done much for peace in the east.
It “represents millions of religious Ukrainian citizens and to call this number of Ukrainian citizens a hotbed of instability is to defame them or define them as second class citizens who are rejected by the political elite,” he said in an interview.
Poroshenko is trailing in the opinion polls. The move for an independent church could boost his ratings and burnish his legacy, though opponents call it a dangerous electoral ploy that will inflame social tensions. Even supporters say it is a risk.
Archbishop Yevstraty, the Kiev Patriarchate spokesman, said Poroshenko acted with surprising courage in staking his authority on a policy that may not come off.
“For him as a politician it is clear that if the hopes he has sowed in society ... are not realized, it is a big threat,” he said.
He is not the first president to push for an autocephalous church.
But the quest has gained impetus since he returned from a visit to Istanbul in April, when Poroshenko sought the backing of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.
A spokesman for the Patriarchate declined to comment.
The move is opposed by the Kremlin, Russian Orthodox Church and some of Poroshenko’s political opponents.
A campaign is underway to collect signatures asking Bartholomew to block the plan.
That prompted Iryna Friz, an MP in Poroshenko’s faction and senior member of the parliamentary security committee, to ask the state security service to investigate the campaign, which she says was initiated by the Moscow Patriarchate church.
Asked about the assertion, Archbishop Kliment said “it is the initiative of the laity.”
Patriarch Filaret, the leader of the Kiev Patriarchate church, would be the only obvious choice to head the autocephalous church, according to Archbishop Yevstraty.
That could play well with many Ukrainians, two-thirds of whom are Orthodox believers, according to 2018 research published by the Kiev-based Razumkov think-tank.
The proportion of those supporting the Kiev Patriarchate doubled to 29 percent from 15 percent between 2010-2018 while support for the Moscow Patriarchate almost halved to 13 percent.
The Kiev Patriarchate won followers at its rival’s expense after 2014 protests ousted a pro-Russian leader.
It blessed those protesting against President Viktor Yanukovich and gave sanctuary to people injured in clashes with security forces in a makeshift clinic in its St. Michael’s monastery in the center of the capital.
Its leadership has denounced Russian leader Vladimir Putin as possessed by Satan.
Cases where priests from the Moscow Patriarchate refused to hold funeral services for Ukrainian soldiers who died in the Donbass conflict, or blessed pro-Russian fighters, have raised hackles.
“...there are many examples when they refuse to read the burial service over deceased veterans or people baptized in Kyiv Patriarchate; this all leads to tensions,” said Rostyslav Pavlenko, the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration.
“Moreover, the veterans recall instances when churches in the east were used as rally point for terrorists,” he told Reuters.
Back in November 2014, feelings ran high in Ptycha when villagers voted on whether the blue-painted church should remain part of the Moscow Patriarchate or switch across.
The vote sparked years of confrontation. In December 2015, the two sides went at each other with clubs, while this April there was another standoff when hooded men broke into the church, witnesses say.
The Kiev Patriarchate side accuses the Moscow Patriarchate of bringing “titushki”, or thugs-for-hire, to cause trouble. The Moscow Patriarchate side says its rival uses nationalist militia. Finally the police shut the building down.
Maria Furmanets, a villager of the Moscow Patriarchate faith, says it is unfair to paint her as a Russian stooge.
“We are always blamed for everything as we are ‘Moskals,’” she said, using a derogatory word for ethnic Russians.
“We’ve lived our whole life in Ukraine, we love our Ukraine a lot more than they (the Kiev Patriarchate) do, we love our land and our church,” she said. “I don’t even recognize the Kiev Patriarchate - it’s a political organization.”
Poroshenko’s plan is criticized by the Opposition Bloc, the heir to Yanukovich’s defunct Party of Regions, which has its power base in the east.
“When officials interfere with church affairs, expect trouble, expect tension and interconfessional conflicts,” leader Yuriy Boyko told Reuters.
“The president has a low rating and is trying to raise it through this kind of action.”
Poroshenko’s camp denies his plan is for electoral gain, saying work towards it began four years ago.
“We see it as a historical opportunity,” said Pavlenko of the Presidential Administration.
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Editing by Mike Collett-White