‘Rebel priest’ in Ukraine prays for pro-Russian gunmen but denies covert support

April 29, 2014

(A pro-Russian armed man stands guard at a barricade near the state security service building in Slaviansk, April 28, 2014. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

Father Vitaly says he prays every day for the armed men who now wield power in Slaviansk, stronghold of pro-Russian separatists who have seized key buildings in a dozen towns across eastern Ukraine this month.

“There’s a point at which you just can’t take it anymore and you have to pick yourself up and stand up for yourself,” the bearded, broad-shouldered Orthodox priest said of his hostility to the Ukrainian leadership which has taken power in Kiev.

Standing under the dark blue cupolas of his church on the outskirts of town, Father Vitaly denies accusations he has an active role in the uprising – including an allegation that he even provides a logistics and command base for the rebels.

But he makes no apology for aiding parishioners who have taken up arms against the new government in Kiev and dismisses suggestions that they – or he – takes orders from Moscow.

Vitaly, aged in his 40s and with his thinning brown hair tied back in a traditional clerical knot, says they are merely carrying out the will of Slaviansk, where Russian is the first language of most of the 130,000 residents. Many are alarmed by leaders in Kiev seeking to shift the country of about 45 million westward, away from Russia and toward the European Union.

Some residents, however, say Vitaly, whose church follows the leadership of the Orthodox patriarch in Moscow, has provided more than just spiritual support for the armed uprising, in fact throwing open the church’s property to gunmen who are currently holding several detainees, including seven foreign OSCE observers.

The Moscow patriarch is closely associated with President Vladimir Putin and his project to revive a greater Russian national idea. Now some priests in Ukraine’s industrial east seem to making common cause with rebels, many of whom hope to follow Crimea into breaking with Kiev and into annexation by Russia.

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