Catholic News Service photos
Orthodox clergymen pray next to armed servicemen near Russian army vehicles outside a Ukrainian border guard post in Ukraine's Crimean region
 Catholic News Service photos
Orthodox clergymen pray next to armed servicemen near Russian army vehicles outside a Ukrainian border guard post in Ukraine's Crimean region

At Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church in Springfield, parishioners are anxious about the homeland of their faith.

Members of the Oregon parish send gift packages to an orphanage and other needy groups in Ukraine, a nation nagged by economic stagnation and now embroiled in a volatile territorial dispute with its massive neighbor, Russia.

"We are praying daily for the Ukrainian people in their struggle for a just government and a decent standard of living," says Father Richard Janowicz, longtime pastor of Nativity.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of the Ukraine's Catholic Church, has said Ukrainians must stand up to what he sees as Russian military incursion into Crimea so that a sovereign, free Ukraine will endure.

"We are very proud of our Patriarch Sviatoslav and all the clergy there who are standing alongside and supporting the lawful requests of the millions of Catholic faithful in Ukraine, together with the clergy and people of the Orthodox and Evangelical Churches," says Father Janowicz. "May the Lord bring bring them to peace and justice."

A Ukrainian Catholic priest in Crimea says church members are alarmed and frightened by the Russian military occupation and fear their communities might be outlawed again if Russian rule becomes permanent.

"No one knows what will happen," says Father Mykhailo Milchakovskyi, a pastor in Kerch. "Many people are trying to sell their homes and move to other parts of Ukraine."

The Ukrainian Catholic Church has no legal status in Russia. Ukrainian Catholics traditionally make up about 10 percent of Crimean peninsula's 2 million inhabitants.

"Many have already stopped coming to church, after being branded nationalists and fascists by local provocateurs," Father Milchakovskyi says.

Under Soviet rule, from 1946 to 1989, the Eastern-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed. The strongest members lived their faith clandestinely, while others attended an Orthodox church or no church at all. The government confiscated all church property, giving some buildings to the Orthodox and putting other buildings to secular uses.

Recent news reports say unarmed groups of volunteers, with support from local authorities, were attempting to protect Crimean churches, mosques and cemeteries from looting and vandalism ahead of the referendum.

As the Soviet Union was crumbling in the 1990s, Olga Shurko came to Oregon from Ukraine at 9 with her parents and brother, sponsored by Nativity Parish. Baptized covertly away from the eyes of Soviet officials, she now attends St. Irene Byzantine Catholic Church in North Portland.

Her grandparents and many relatives still reside in Lviv, a center of Ukrainian culture in the nation's west and one hub of the Orange Revolution, a peaceful democratic movement in 2004-'05.

Shurko is troubled by what she sees as an onslaught of Russian propaganda as troops and then a secession vote threaten to wrest the Crimea region from Ukraine and bring it to Russia.

"I hope the world's not buying it," she says.  

When Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych began to make what seemed to be shady deals with Russia, Shurko and many Ukrainians laughed it off as a flashback of the old corruption. But as the magnitude of Yanukovych's wealth became known on the streets, poverty-striken Ukrainians were angered.    

"They were working hard but saw no future for themselves," Shurko says. She recalls her Ukrainian cousins, who obtained college degrees and speak multiple languages, but who are unable to find jobs.

"It's a lot of bribery and who you know," she says.  

Shurko is outraged that Yanukovych and his Russian allies characterize the uprisings as the work of terrorists.

"It's a complete joke," she says. "You look at pictures — terrorists? These are old grandmas stacking food."

Shurko's mother phones relatives in Ukraine daily and so far all are safe.  

The whole family is grateful that U.S. officials and others have acknowledged that Ukraine is a sovereign nation that is being wronged. But no one wants war. Praying that both sides remain patient, Shurko favors the international sanctions against Russia that are under way.  

"People in Lviv don't want to be Europe or Russia," she says. "They are their own country."

Russia's move on Crimea brings back bad memories for Sigitas Babusis, a member of St. James Parish in McMinnville. A retired pediatrician, he was a boy in Lithuania in 1940 when Soviet troops under Josef Stalin invaded his country. He saw many villagers carted off to work in Siberia. Even those who stayed saw life change radically, losing national sovereignty and living like slaves. He recalls attending Mass hidden in basements in a nation that was 95 percent Catholic.   

"I feel for the Ukrainians," Babusis says. "They are going through hard times. It is living in fear. They feel they can be occupied in the blink of an eye and no one will help them."

— Catholic News Service contributed to this report