(Birds fly over an Orthodox church in a monastery in the village of Nikolskoye, some 48 km (30 miles) from the eastern city of Donetsk, February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

Ukrainian Orthodox Christians who are loyal to Kiev feel increasingly unsafe in Crimea after Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula and some have already left, church leaders said on Monday.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the advent of an independent Ukraine, the country’s Orthodox faithful have been split between the Kiev and Moscow Patriarchates. The much larger Moscow-based Church does not recognise its Kiev-based rival, which is not part of the global Orthodox communion.

The estimated 220,000 Crimeans loyal to the Kiev Patriarchate have long felt marginalised because of the region’s strong pro-Russian sympathies, but Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula has fuelled their feelings of vulnerability.

Their misgivings echo those of another minority, the Crimean Tatars, a mostly Muslim Turkic people, about Russia’s annexation. Crimea’s majority ethnic Russian population voted strongly in favour of joining Russia in a March 16 referendum branded illegal by Kiev and the West.