(Photo: Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko)
With Roman Catholics in Crimea fearing a new wave of oppression, arrests and church confiscation under Russian rule, many moving to other parts of Ukraine.
"No one knows what will happen. Many people are trying to sell their homes and move to other parts of Ukraine," Father Mykhailo Milchakovskyi of Kerch told Catholic News Service on Wednesday.
"Our church has no legal status in the Russian Federation, so it's uncertain which laws will be applied if Crimea is annexed. We fear our churches will be confiscated and our clergy arrested," the priest stated, ahead of Sunday's referendum in Crimea in which the territory could decide to join the Russian Federation.
Western nations have condemned Russia's occupation of Crimea, with troops having taken control of the disputed region earlier in March. Members of the European Union and the U.S. have argued that the referendum is illegitimate, and called for the central Ukrainian government to be involved in the decision, though Russia has indicated that it would accept Crimea if it votes to secede.
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, has called on citizens to be ready to sacrifice their lives to protect the country's freedom if necessary, calling on the protection of Ukraine as a free and unified state.
In Russia, Roman Catholics make up a minority of the population, less than 0.5 percent, and the church body is not officially recognized by the state. During the Soviet Union rule from 1946 to 1989, the Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed, with the government confiscating Catholic Church property and handing it over to the Orthodox Church, the dominant religion.
Milchakovskyi said that he fears similar circumstances might befall Crimea's Catholics, who make up around 10 percent of the territory's 2 million-strong population.
"Many have already stopped coming to church, after being branded nationalists and fascists by local provocateurs," the priest explained.
"The Orthodox have always insisted they're dominant here and done everything to make life unpleasant for us. If they're now given a free hand, we don't know whether they'll behave like Christians or follow the same unfriendly policy."
As for the referendum, Milchakovskyi said in another interview that Catholics will likely not take part in the voting.
"Everyone says the results of the referendum are already known, although many would vote to remain in Ukraine, or to retain Crimea's autonomous status," he said. "The referendum will have no legal status, and we don't even know who'll conduct it and count the votes. But we're deeply anxious it will be used as a pretext to act against us."
The Vatican has called for believers around the world to pray for Ukraine, with Pope Francis calling the conflict a "very delicate situation."
"While I hope that all sectors of the country will endeavor to overcome misunderstandings and build the future of the nation together, I make a heartfelt appeal to the international community to support every initiative in favor of dialogue and harmony," the pope said earlier in March.