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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 December 2004, 17:02 GMT
Churches split in Ukraine crisis
Worshippers at an Orthodox Church in Donetsk, which backs Mr Yanukovych
Yanukovych is backed by the pro-Russian Orthodox Church
Ukraine's disputed presidential elections and descent into political crisis have been tinged with religious symbolism.

The divided churches reflect the "schisms" in Ukrainian society "between those looking to the West and those looking to the East," according to Felix Corley, a specialist in Orthodox Church affairs.

Orthodox icons and statues of Virgin Mary were paraded by demonstrators on both sides - even after generations of state-sponsored atheism under Soviet rule, which had tried to eradicate religion altogether.

The country's religious communities are split between pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, who rejected the official result, and his rival Viktor Yanukovych, seen as pro-Russian.

Viktor Yushchenko with clergy
Yushchenko aims to a "president for believers of all faiths"
"Obviously each religious community is trying to gain its own advantage from the result of this election," Mr Corley told BBC World Service's Reporting Religion programme.

"The supporters of Yanukovych in the Moscow Patriarchy hope it will cement their power; it's the largest single denomination and the most powerful one.

"The opposition supporters of Yushchenko believe - and he has actually said so - that he will be a president for believers of all faiths, although he himself is Orthodox."

Fractured picture

The Orthodox Church in Ukraine, by far the biggest religious community, is itself split three ways, Mr Corley explained.

The largest of these groups is the Moscow Patriarchy, strongly aligned with Russian nationalism.

This church fears a weakening of its power if Mr Yushchenko gains power - so it has strongly backed Mr Yanukovych.

"Ukraine - of all the former Soviet republics - is the one that probably has the most religious splits," Mr Corley says.

Pro-Yushchenko orange banner outside a church in Kiev
They all want to see peace and stability - but they do at the same time want to see their own favoured candidate come to power
Felix Corley
The two other Orthodox churches are smaller, breakaway groups. There is also the Greek Catholic Church in the pro-Yushchenko west of Ukraine, and a large Protestant community - which was very strong even during the Soviet period.

"Really, the religious picture is very fractured," Mr Corley said.

"This is being reflected in the political arena as well."

Ukraine has enjoyed greater religious freedom than many other former Soviet republics, with no one single religious community all-powerful.

This contrasts with the situation in Russia, where the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchy dominates.

"We have seen a fairly free field, which has allowed Protestant groups to flourish, the Jehovah's Witnesses, other newer groups, with connections in the outside world," Mr Corley said.

"They seem to be able to practise unfettered, although this election has seen a lot of government leaning on religious communities not to take part in the political arena."

Civil war fears

The non-Moscow Patriarchy faiths "are really lining up" behind Yushchenko, according to Mr Corley.

They believe he will lead the country towards democracy, a free religious sphere, and alignment with western European countries.

And they strongly oppose Mr Yanukovych, fearing that he could "try to install a Russian-dominated regime, perhaps with restrictions that hark back to the Soviet period," Mr Corley stressed.

However, the churches are unlikely to seek civil war, distancing themselves from some extreme elements in Ukraine.

"They realise that no one will benefit if there is bloodshed, if there is violence, if the country splits apart as some people have threatened," he said.

"I think they all want to see peace and stability - but they do at the same time want to see their own favoured candidate come to power."


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