A church under surveillance by a man in a Toyota
Officially the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is now fully independent of Moscow, but many parishes remain loyal to the Russian patriarch – leading in some cases to local tensions. The BBC's Nick Sturdee witnessed this in a town in the nationalist west of the country.
The sun is streaming through the lofty windows of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Bohorodchany. The divine floodlight illuminates icons and families before them, and the tear-like streaks of condensation on the frescoes thought miraculous by those who attend here. The congregation chants, many brandishing their candles as though ready for battle.
Father Volodymyr faces them all, bearded, crucifix clasped in both hands. Today's sermon is on the persecution of Orthodox saints through the ages, and moves inexorably and seamlessly to the present – in fact, to the events in this very church just a few days earlier. "There were 40 of them. They broke down the doors," he announces. "They forced us to the ground. They hit our sexton on the head. They called us KGB agents and said we should switch church. Change our confession. All in a very nice, democratic way – of course."
This is the story according to Father Volodymyr – a Russia-trained priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – of how a delegation from the town council, with a supporting cast of local political "activists", had come to the church to execute an order ejecting him and his family from rooms they had occupied for some 20 years.
Across Ukraine, congregations and priests are switching, voluntarily or otherwise, from Father Volodymyr's branch of the church, known as the Moscow Patriarchate – dominant here since the collapse of the Soviet Union, headed by priests approved by the increasingly politicised Russian Orthodox Church – to a newly recognised Kiev Patriarchate. This is fiercely independent from Russia and blisteringly critical of the Moscow branch's failure to condemn Russia's annexation of Crimea and its ongoing sponsorship of the war still rumbling in the east of this country.
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The local authorities in Bohorodchany say that what happened here was strictly within the law, and that the priest's family's rooms are needed by the town's growing music school.
But Father Volodymyr says it was a violent act, part of a wave of persecution unleashed by a Ukrainian state intent on imposing its nationalist will on the country's Orthodox Christians.
He and his wife Vera show us some mobile phone footage of the incident: a heated argument, voices raised, local officials and a man they say leads the town's chapter of Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist political and paramilitary group. But there's no violence.
The congregation – young, old, very young, very old – listen to their priest's account of their church being defiled, with what you might call stoic indignation. Certainly not disbelief.
Many have already read it about it online. According to Volodymyr's Facebook page, eagerly echoed by Russian news websites, the marauders had beaten worshippers and priests alike, throwing them on to the pavement outside, acting so fast that – rather surprisingly – no-one had time to film that bit.
But outside the church there is definitely something going on – and it's emanating from a battered white Toyota. We'd first noticed it the day before, parked just outside the church gates, as Father Volodymyr showed us around. "They've been watching us," he said. A man with a boxer's physique stood at the passenger's door, leaning on the car roof, pointing his video camera at us. One of the babushkas from the congregation had tried to shoo him away, to no avail.
The church hasn't always been an Orthodox one. The structure is a typical Catholic church, an 18th Century monument to the ruling Polish population that worshipped here before fleeing or being purged in 1944.
Nazi occupation meant that the Jewish population hadn't even survived till then
Father Volodymyr leads us to the locked door of his former apartment, shining his phone on the official seal, rattling the door handle for good effect, the sound echoing in the dark. We're interrupted by a sharp metallic creak. It's the Toyota man, pointing his video camera at us again. "Why are you filming?" cries Vera. "Stop – come here!"
Toyota man retreats – to his Toyota, now parked in the puddled yard outside. It tries to reverse. Suspense turns to farce as our black-robed Orthodox priest and his shawled wife close in on the vehicle.
"What are you doing here?" we ask Toyota man, cornered among the potholes of a music school yard with three friends in hoodies.
"We are the people who love Ukraine. These people do not love Ukraine. They are Russia."
He closes the window.
It's not the last time we see Toyota man. He's alone and comfortable waiting outside the office of the head of the local authority when we come to interview him. What's a man who has been intimidating a priest and his congregation doing here, we ask? "Maybe he wants to tell me something," smirks Franko Frankovich Ezhak. "Maybe he also wants to ask me questions. It's my walk-in surgery day today."
It feels like the Church of the Holy Trinity might be about to get a new owner.
Nick Sturdee and Yalda Hakim reported from Ukraine for Our World, on BBC World News
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